Due to the geographical isolation of New Zealand, pre-European Māori had little contact with neighbouring islands. Trade and commerce were internally based so there was no need for a precise measuring system. However, activities such as wharenui construction, waka making, woodcarving and weaving did require a high degree of precision. This precision was achieved more through the eye of the operator than by reference to a defined standard.

Human body used for measurement standards

Measurement standards used were most often based on the human body. For example, the span of the arms outstretched horizontally was the mārō, whanganga or aronui. When constructing a wharenui, the arm span (whanganga) of a designated person, most often a person of importance such as a high-ranking chief, would be marked on a cord or rod (rauru) for measuring purposes. These rauru were often handed down over many generations, particularly on the East Coast, and considered a taonga (treasure).

Another version of this unit was the pae, where the outstretched arms are bent to form a circle such that the girth of a tree or other such objects could be measured.

For longer measures, the length of the body with one arm outstretched (takoto) was used, and 1 kumi equated to 10 mārō, a distance of about 18 metres.

Shorter measures were based on the hand and arm:

  • Tuke – the length from the elbow to the finger tips (cubit).
  • Kōiti – the length of the little finger.
  • Kōnui – the length of the first joint of the thumb.

These personal standards of length measurement would vary from person to person, and within any one tribe, one person may have been selected to act as the length measurement standard.

Astronomical phenomena used for time measurement

Pre-European Māori based measurement of time on astronomical phenomena such as the transition of the sun (Rā) through the seasons. The phases of the moon featured as time measure, and ‘nights of the moon’ were referred to rather than days – 30 nights of the moon were commonly identified and named. The night of the first appearance of the new moon was whiro. Full moon (huanga) covered 3 nights – ohua, turu and rākau-nui.

Several series of names were in use for the 12 lunar months that were recognised. Each tribe recognised proper names for the months but also the use of ordinal numbers. For example, the 1st month was commonly named Pipiri but also known as te tahi.

New Year – Matariki, Puanga

The timing of the New Year varied from district to district. For example, East Coast tribes recognised the first new moon after the appearance, before sunrise, of the Pleiades star cluster (the rising of Matariki) as the start of the New Year.

This occurs in late May or early June. In northern and southern parts, it was the rising, before sunrise, of Rigel (Puanga) in the constellation Orion that was recognised as the start of the New Year. The New Year signalled the commencement of the winter season, and both these astronomical sightings occurred close together so there was not much difference as to the date of the commencement of the year.

Two main divisions of the year were recognised – winter (takurua) and summer (raumati) – and four main seasons, starting with winter (takurua), spring (kōanga – relating to digging and planting crops), summer (raumati) and autumn (ngahuru – relating to crop-lifting).

In Japan, the Subaru car brand is named after the Matariki stars.

Useful links

More information on Māori measurement.

Best, E. (1918). The Maori system of measurement. The New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology, 1(1), 26–32.

More information on the Pleiades star cluster.

    Published 17 August 2011