Whakataukī and ecology

Palisades whakataukiIn societies with oral rather than written traditions, ecological and historical information is embedded in many different forms of oral tradition (Wehi et al. 2019, Wehi 2009). In this research, I and my collaborators explore some of this ecological information, what it tells us about past ecosystems and how it acts as a blueprint for living.

In this article, I and Hēmi Whaanga talk about the project, and how we explored the whakataukī and their meanings.

Extinction of keystone fauna was important for shaping ecological and social thought in Māori society, and suggests a similar role in other early societies that lived through megafaunal extinction events. Māori names for birds that became extinct prior to European arrival are now unknown, with the exception of words for moa and pouākai. This loss contrasts with the retention of names for birds that became extinct after European arrival, and highlights one way that language and knowledge of biodiversity are intertwined.

Key avian extinction periods occurred shortly after Māori and European settlement periods; invasive mammal arrivals have been identified as important drivers of extinction, along with overhunting after Polynesian arrival and habitat destruction after European arrival. See more on this work, written for a lay audience, here and here.

There is a great diversity of knowledge embedded in oral tradition. In work on marine and freshwater species, we created a network of high frequency species names and content words appearing in individual whakataukī (e.g. kai and kōura, food and crayfish; kai and pātiki, food and flounder). The resulting network (shown below), indicates clear connections between sharks, and death (mate) with humans (tangata), indicating a strong relationship between their behaviour (i.e. struggling to death, persistence, perseverance) and desired human attributes in times of confrontation.

Relationships between tuna (eel) and kai (food), watchfulness and sleeping, suggest the importance of alertness and observation when fishing. The proximity of fish species and the network to moana (ocean) and uta (towards the shore) gives examples of spatial proximity, or the different habitats where these species may be found. The network links between wai (water) and shallow water species (e.g. pāua, pātiki, pāpaka (abalone, flounder, crab)) and kai (food) but also to mau (capture) and whai (pursue) to illustrate further examples of food sources, and spatial proximity in relation to harvesting actions.

You can listen to the interview conducted by Jesse Mulligan for Radio New Zealand about whakataukī – proverbs or sayings – Māori had about moa extinction.