The caves, Wanganui River, Late nineteenth century, Muir & Moodie studio (1898–1916), Maker unknown, Dunedin. Te Papa

Why were Toi moko made 

 Before the growth of a trade in Toi moko, the Māori preserved heads for two reasons – either to venerate a loved one, or as a trophy of war to ridicule an enemy.  The latter served to reduce the mana (prestige, status, authority) of the defeated party, while enhancing that of the victors, and as such they were often displayed for a period of time following a successful battle.  While it was a sign of respect to preserve a loved one’s head, the desecration of a head was the ultimate insult between enemies.

Ormond Wilson explains that the “special tapu attaching to the head made it important to bring home the heads of both one’s allies and one’s enemies.  Those who had fallen on the victorious side were treasured and honourably preserved, while those of the defeated enemy were impaled on posts…”

Rev. Richard Taylor, writing in 1855, describes the reasons for which Toi moko were made:

“This was done in order that great warriors might show the heads of all the distinguished chiefs they killed.  But this art was not employed for that purpose alone; it enabled them to preserve the heads of those who were dear to them, and to keep these remembrances of beloved objects ever near”. 

Early Europeans arriving in New Zealand wanted to collect items associated with Māori and Moriori culture, such as carvings, weavings, and traditional weapons. They were also fascinated by more sombre and macabre aspects of cultural ceremony, such as the preservation of heads of the deceased.  From the late eighteenth century, for around 100 years, there was a high demand for Toi moko, which were traded for exhibition in museums, institutions and private collections around the world. 

From the early nineteenth century, much of the trade of Toi moko was in exchange for muskets and gunpowder, and occurred in the Bay of Islands and Kapiti.  Other points of trade include Thames, Foveaux Strait, Otago and Murihiku.


Research into the Early Collection and Trade of Toi moko, Amber Aranui (Word, 40.5KB) 

Aranui, Amber. Of Mana & Muskets: Research into the Trade and Collection of Toi Moko,  Wellington: Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, presentation 14 April 2011.

Orchiston, D. Wayne. “Preserved Human Heads of the New Zealand Maoris”, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 76, 1967, pp. 297-329.

Wilson, Ormond. From Hongi Hika to Hone Heke: a Quarter Century of Upheaval, Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1985.

Taylor, Rev. Richard. Te Ika A Maui:  New Zealand and Its Inhabitants, London: Wertheim and Macintosh, 1855.

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. “He Maimai Aroha: A Disgusting Traffic for Collectors: The Colonial Trade in Preserved Human Heads in Aotearoa, New Zealand”, in A Kiendl ed. Obsession, Compulsion, Collection: On Objects, Display Culture and Interpretation, Alberta: The Banff Centre Press, 2004.