The Mokomokai, preserved heads of Maori tribespeople, stand as both a testament to ancient cultural practices and a somber reflection of the impact of European colonization on New Zealand. These artifacts, valued for their intricate facial tattoos known as Moko, hold a complex history that intertwines traditions, trade, and the consequences of war.
Preservation Process and Cultural Significance: Mokomokai were crafted with meticulous care, preserving the heads of family members, esteemed tribe members, or adversaries. The preservation process involved removing the brain and eyes, sealing orifices, boiling or steaming, smoking over a fire, and finally, allowing them to dry in the sun. The result was a mummified head, adorned with a beautifully preserved Moko.
European Trade Influence: In the 1700s, European invasion brought a shift in the perception of Mokomokai. Viewed as valuable trade items, these artifacts became part of transactions between the Maori and Europeans, often exchanged for muskets. This exchange played a role in sparking the Musket Wars (1807-1842), resulting in a significant loss of life among the Maori.
Post-War Production and Collection: Following the Musket Wars, the Maori resorted to producing Mokomokai from the heads of slaves and prisoners, sometimes posthumously tattooing them for trade. As New Zealand became a British Colony, Mokomokai trade was eventually outlawed, although it persisted until around 1870. British collectors, like Major-General Horatio Gordon Robley, amassed large collections, with some heads eventually finding their way to museums such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Controversy and Repatriation: The origin of many Mokomokai in global museums is now a subject of dispute, with claims that British settlers may have taken them without consent. The Maori community advocates for the repatriation of these heads for proper burial, seeking to reconnect them with their ancestral lands.
The Mokomokai serve as a poignant reminder of the intertwining complexities of cultural preservation, colonial history, and the ongoing dialogue surrounding the repatriation of indigenous artifacts. As discussions continue, these preserved heads stand not only as artifacts in glass cases but as symbols of resilience, urging us to reflect on the importance of respecting and understanding diverse cultural practices.