The brain and eyes were removed from the severed heads, with all orifices sealed with flax fibre and gum. The head was then boiled or steamed in an oven before being smoked over an open fire and dried in the sun for several days. It was then treated with shark oil, and then paraded around like war trophies that could also be bartered for firearms and ammunition.
In the American Museum of Natural History in New York City lies a collection of 30 mokomokai, or the severed, tattooed heads of Maori tribesmen. But how did it get to the Museum?
In the 1860s, Major General Horatio Gordon Robley served in the British Army during the New Zealand Land Wars.
While there, he became fascinated by the local tribesman, the Maori and their tradition of facial tattoos. Being a talented illustrator, he began sketching the tattoos and eventually published a book on the subject.
He discovered that the facial tattoos, known as moko, were given mostly to men who ranked highly in society. Occasionally a high-ranking woman would have moko on her lips or chin, but it was rare.
When someone with moko died, their entire head would be preserved, in order to honor their high social standing. During preservation, the brain and eyes were removed, with all orifices sealed with flax fibre and gum. The head was then boiled or steamed in an oven before being smoked over an open fire and dried in the sun for several days. It was then treated with shark oil.
The head was then given to the tribesman’s family, who would keep it in an ornate box and bring it out for sacred ceremonies.
Occasionally, the heads of enemy chiefs killed in battle were also preserved; these mokomokai, being considered trophies of war, would be displayed and mocked. They were important in diplomatic negotiations between warring tribes, with the return and exchange of mokomokai being an essential precondition for peace.
During the early 19th century, when Europeans arrived in New Zealand, the mokomokai became valuable items for trade. The Europeans, like Robley, were fascinated by the heads and were willing to trade them for firearms, which the Maori could use for their military.
In the early 19th century, with the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand, tribes in contact with European sailors, traders and settlers had access to firearms, giving them a military advantage over their neighbours. This gave rise to the Musket Wars, when other tribes became desperate to acquire firearms too, if only to defend themselves. During this period of social destabilisation, mokomokai became commercial trade items that could be sold as curious, artworks and as museum specimens which fetched high prices in Europe and America, and which could be bartered for firearms and ammunition.
The demand for firearms was such that tribes carried out raids on their neighbours to acquire more heads to trade for them. They would tattoo slaves and prisoners and create fake moko, in order to meet the high demand.
Through the trade, Robley acquired a collection of 35-40 mokomokaiwhich he later offered to sell to the New Zealand Government. When the offer was declined, most of the collection was sold to the American Museum of Natural History for £1,250.
The peak years of the trade in mokomokai were from 1820 to 1831. In 1831 the Governor of New South Wales issued a proclamation banning further trade in heads out of New Zealand, and during the 1830s the demand for firearms diminished because every surviving group was fully armed. By 1840 when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, and New Zealand became a British colony, the export trade in mokomokai had virtually ended, along with a decline in the use of moko in Māori society.
More recently there has been a campaign to repatriate to New Zealand the hundreds of mokomokai held in museums and private collections around the world, either to be returned to their relatives or to the Museum of New Zealand for storage.