Mokomokai: The Collecting of Tattooed Maori Heads

Major General H.G. Robley and his collection of Mokomokai

Tattooing has existed as a means of marking individuals as part of a society for thousands of years. Many tribes throughout the world practice tattooing as a way to show who belongs to what group, whether it be a given tribe, a socioeconomic level, or a certain religious affiliation.

Maori Tattooing

The Maori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, having arrived on the islands in the 1200s. The Maori are famous for their tattoos, or moko. Unlike most tattoo designs, the moko left permanent grooves in the individual’s face, enhancing the design. These were given to individuals of high status of the tribe. Men’s tattoos covered much of their body and their face. Women’s tattoos were rare, and frequently involved designs on the chin and lips. These tattoos featured very specific patterns, all of which told the story of an individual’s lineage, ancestry, occupation, rank, tribe, and victories of their lives. These tattoos created a link between the individual and their ancestors. Therefore, these tattoos held great spiritual significance, and the individuals responsible for creating the moko were held to strict traditions and guidelines.

A Maori woman bearing the traditional chin and lip moko


an exquisitely preserved mokomokai. The flax and gum seals can clearly be seen in the nostrils

Given the religious significance of the moko, it is therefore not surprising that the Maori would preserve them as a way of preserving their history, heritage, and religious structure. Upon death, the individual would be ceremonially decapitated. Similar to other cultures that preserved the dead, the eyes and brains would then be removed. The process would then follow a process similar to the shrunken heads of South America, with the head being boiled or steamed. It would then be smoked and left out to cure in the sun for several days before being treated with shark oil. This process insured the head’s longevity. Upon completion, the head would be returned to the individual’s family, who would store it with reverence in an ornate wooden case. It would only be removed for important religious celebrations.

European Arrival of the 19th Century

When Europeans began arriving in New Zealand, they became interested in the mokomokai, thus turning what was once a religious relic into a tradable commodity. These heads would be returned to Europe or North America and sold as curiosities or museum specimen. Maori would trade heads for items previously unavailable to them, including firearms. The demand grew so large that the Maori began raiding other villages in order to collect heads to tattoo. They also began tattooing the heads of slaves, purely to create mokomokai to trade. This period became known as the Musket Wars, a very violent time in New Zealand’s history. This war eventually petered out, as in 1831 the governor of New South Wales put a ban on the international trade of mokomokai. This, coupled with all of the remaining Maori groups being fully armed, largely ended what had been a very violent trade.

The Robley Collection

The most famous collection of mokomokai is the collection of Horatio Gordon Robley. Robley was a British major general who served in New Zealand during the New Zealand Land Wars of the 1860s. Robley was a student of ethnology and an avid artist. He was quite taken by the intricacies of the mokomokai, and spent the next three decades studying them. Robley published the classic work on the subject of moko, Moko; or Maori Tattooing, which was published in 1896. During the three decades he spent studying, he collected over 35 mokomokai, which he eventually sold for 1,250 British Pounds to the American Museum of Natural History.

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