Sunday, May 8, 2011

Moving ahead

The quality of relations between France and New Zealand sank to an all-time low after the incident of the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. Today, judging from the volume of legs of New Zealand lamb in French supermarkets, business seems to be moving ahead.

The rest of this blog post is based upon an interesting French-language article of 6 May 2011 by Frédéric Lewino in Le Point [access].

Tomorrow morning, in the French city of Rouen, two women—a French member of parliament, Valérie Fourneyon, mayoress of Rouen, and New Zealand's ambassador to France, Rosemary Banks—will be coming together for a strange ceremony. The lady from the Antipodes will be taking custody of the tattooed head of an anonymous Maori warrior that has been reposing for 136 years in the local museum of natural history.

So-called moko face tattoos, indicating the genealogy of noble individuals, were a part of ancient Maori culture. The tattooed heads of deceased warriors—referred to as mokomai—were kept as precious relics. Following the arrival in New Zealand of the English navigator James Cook, the marketing of mokomai became a thriving business, enabling the Maoris to acquire European weapons. Apparently the very first purchaser of a moko was Joseph Banks, Cook's naturalist companion. The market value of these objects rose to such a level that certain unscrupulous indigenous communities did not hesitate to capture slaves, tattoo their faces with meaningless junk, kill and decapitate these victims, and transform their heads into highly-priced fake mokomai.

The phenomenon was brought to an end in the middle of the 19th century, but specimens were displayed, by then, in many of the world's great museums. There was even a famous private collector, a British soldier named Horatio Robley [1840-1930], seen here in a photo that dates from about a century ago.

Is there some kind of "moral logic" in returning such objects to their land of origin, New Zealand? Personally, I fail to appreciate why this is being done. These mummified hunks of DNA don't "belong" to today's indigenous population of New Zealand in any objective sense whatsoever. It's not as if the victims were abducted recently, and the absence of their bodily remains were preventing their Antipodean descendants from attenuating their grief. And, if anybody were to suggest that a moko head in some far-flung corner of the world contained an ethereal spirit (not to be confused with the head's DNA) that was yearning to return to the company of its descendants in New Zealand, I would be tempted to reply: "How sad. Too bad."

That's to say, maybe the heads should never have been severed in the first place. But, since they now exist, and since anthropologists and other people find them interesting, it would be silly to invoke supernatural reasons for putting them in one place rather than another, or doing one thing with them (exhibiting them) rather than another (say, burying them in the earth of New Zealand). Obviously, I would not talk this way if ever I were convinced that there are serious folk out in New Zealand who are genuinely upset, in an intense emotional manner, by the fact that mokomai are scattered throughout the world. And, when I speak of "serious folk", I'm obliged to exclude simple-minded individuals who believe in ancient spirits.

No community, of course, neither here in France nor elsewhere, would ever think of appointing a guy like me to handle questions of tattooed Maori heads. Fortunately, therefore, what I have to say on this subject is of negligible importance.


  1. I agree with your blog and as a NZer living in NZ I and many others are sick and tired of what is going on with this so called repatriation of heads. Many of us believe it is an effort by so called 'Maori' to bury the truth about their past - rampant cannibalism, human sacrifice, infanticide etc. What is this costing NZ - look at all those involved in the bogus ceremonial claptrap involved in the handover! Everything that is in museums around the world should stay there, it should not come back to NZ to be buried! It is appalling that artifacts are being buried. Every generation should investigate and explore using new technologies and methods and seek to add to knowledge.
    Your blog is a voice of sanity amidst the insanity of bogus, invented practices by mixed blood descendants of Maori - a people who in reality no longer exist.

  2. Thank you for describing my humble blog as "a voice of sanity amidst the insanity of bogus". In the case of the mokomai, the basic absurdity consists of attributing a spiritual dimension to old human relics. The Catholics were playing a similar game in Rome, a few weeks ago, when they dragged out the coffin of a deceased pope for a silly ritual of so-called beatification. Hunks of dead DNA (such as the tattooed head of a Maori warrior or the embalmed corpse of a religious chief) can play a significant role in the fascinating sciences of anthropology and genetic genealogy, and should be respected in this capacity. But only in this capacity, not as alleged spiritual relics. To my mind, there can be no more sacred sepulcher today than a modern science museum, especially a virtual museum such as on the Internet.