Mātauranga Māori is a modern term for the combined knowledge of Polynesian ancestors and the experiences of Māori living in the environment of Aotearoa. The term takes many forms, such as language (te reo), education (mātauranga), traditional environmental knowledge (taonga tuku iho, mātauranga o te taiao), traditional knowledge of cultural practice, such as healing and medicines (rongoā), fishing (hī ika) and cultivation (mahinga kai).

In a traditional sense, mātauranga Māori refers to the knowledge, comprehension or understanding of everything visible or invisible that exists within the universe.

How did mātauranga Māori develop?

Early Māori culture was based on oral lore and had a justice system based on chiefs and tohunga (the knowledge experts). Such experts were chosen from an early age and educated within wānanga (learning institutions) to remember vast amounts of knowledge. The knowledge of the hapū (tribe) and iwi were entrusted to these experts, who would then pass their knowledge on to future experts. The way to memorise such a volume of complex material involved using a whakapapa (genealogical) framework. Whakapapa is used to explain genealogies and taxonomies, to create categories and families of flora and fauna and to describe environmental and life issues. The example below describes the whakapapa of different stones and their grouping:

From chaos sprang Papatūānuku, the Earth mother. Then Papa-matua-te-kore, the parentless, appeared. She mated with Rangi-a-Tamaku. Their firstborn was Putoto, whose sister was Parawhenuamea, the personified form of water. Putoto took his sister, Parawhenuamea, to wife. She gave birth to Rakahore, who mated with Hinekuku, the clay maiden. Hinekuku gave birth to Tuamatua. Tuamatua was the guardian of the different stones and gravel found on sea coasts. The younger brother of Tuamatua, Whatuaho, typified greywacke and chert. Next came Papakura, the origin of volcanic stone…

Retaining understanding in this way has enabled Māori knowledge to be passed on from one generation to another. This body of knowledge arises from the experiences of Māori living in the environment of Aotearoa. Many people have realised that mātauranga Māori contains potentially useful knowledge, for example, about utilising and preserving the environment. 

Mātauranga Māori and science?

There has been debate as to whether mātauranga Maori can be referred to as Māori science. Some suggest that mātauranga Māori is not science. Science and mātauranga Māori do not seek to do the same thing. Mātauranga Maori is knowledge – knowing about things (such as preparing poisonous karaka berries for eating). Science is about finding out why and how things happen (such as why and how karaka berries are poisonous and how preparation removes the poison).

Mātauranga Māori is a knowledge base in its own right. It is Māori knowledge, including values and culture. It is different from modern science. Mātauranga Māori belongs to iwi and should remain under Māori control. Mātauranga Maori is taonga (a treasure) and as such should be protected.

Nature of science

Scientists are recognising the value of Māori knowledge, particularly that concerned with the natural world and ecology. Collaboration with hapū and iwi is becoming an important part of environmental science as we all endeavour to make our environment sustainable.

Vision Mātauranga

Vision Mātauranga is a government policy that aims to unlock the science and innovation potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people for the environmental, economic, social and cultural benefit of New Zealand. Vision Mātauranga forms a core part of each of the 11 National Science Challenges. Individual scientists are also working more closely with Māori communities, incorporating mātauranga Māori within their scientific research. 

Māori communities also benefit when scientists forge strong relationships with local communities and iwi. This enables science research to develop from the experiences or needs of the people. When science knowledge is shared with iwi, it can be beneficial, for example, concerning kaitiakitanga (guardianship of the land). Māori as tangata whenua of Aotearoa, iwi and hapū have an inherent responsibility as kaitiaki (those who carry out kaitiakitanga). Science knowledge can contribute to that task. Mātauranga Māori and science can complement one another, benefiting both Māori (as kaitiaki) and scientists (in their research).

Project Mātauranga

Project Mātauranga is a television series that investigates Māori world views and methodologies within the scientific community. The Science Learning Hub has been fortunate to be able to present some of their episodes with related articles:

Additional links

There are many different views on 'what is mātauranga Māori' and how it relates to western understandings of science. It is important to acknowledge the differing and evolving ideas within this area. In Mātauranga Māori—the ūkaipō of knowledge in New Zealand, scientist and established world expert on integrating indigenous knowledge and science, Dr Dan Hikoura, writes, "mātauranga Māori includes knowledge generated using techniques consistent with the scientific method, but explained according to a Māori world view". 

In this 2007 report for Te Papa's National Services-Te Paerangi, Mātauranga Māori and Museum Practice: A discussion, Dr Charles Te Ahukaramū Royal includes a substantial exploration of 'what is mātauranga Māori'.

In the blog What is Mātauranga Māori?, science communicator Laura Goodall writes, "Mātauranga Māori can’t be translated or defined in a simple, two-dimensional way: it is multifaceted. There are many aspects to it". The blog also includes a video by Prof Steve Pointing and Dr John Perrott on "recognising Māori indigenous knowledge and values in research, education and kaitiakitanga".

To explore different aspects of mātauranga Māori and research utilizing science and mātauranga Māori have a look at our pinterest curation of resources here.


    Published 12 December 2017, Updated 18 December 2017