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Cosmology and Structure: The Tāhuhu in the 19th-Century Whare Māori

Jeremy Treadwell

JPS, Vol 126, No 1 pg (93-122)


Māori construction and structural principles have received limited detailed attention since Reverend Herbert W. Williams published The Maori Whare: Notes on the Construction of a Maori House in this journal in 1896. Since then, publications that have considered Māori construction have relied heavily on this text. Subsequent discussion of Māori construction has examined 19th-century practices largely through Western historical and technical perspectives. This paper discusses Māori building concepts and technology from a bicultural viewpoint, involving both Māori tectonics and cosmology, and Western engineering principles. In doing so it draws from a close scrutiny of whare ‘house’ components, written and oral accounts of Māori cosmology and building, and from the analysis of large-scale structural models. The article focuses on the tāhuhu ‘ridgepole’ as a principal component of Māori architecture that activates both the primary cosmological structure of Te Ao Mārama ‘creation narrative’ and the structural system of the 19th-century Māori house. It is argued that the tāhuhu in its metaphorical manifestation as the atua ‘god’ Tāne (within Te Ao Mārama) corresponds in the construction of the whare with the holding up of the roof, understood as Ranginui, the sky father. Monumental in scale and ancestry, the tāhuhu mobilised a cooperative social dimension to its deployment in the whare, co-opting manpower from hapū and iwi ‘subtribal and tribal groups’. The paper concludes that the tāhuhu was a key element in a sophisticated and high performing Pacific building technology that was, in many ways, antithetical to Western building principles. Located in the abstract and conceptual distance of machine function, Western analysis appears to have failed to identify and understand the effective capacity of socially-collective Polynesian engineering


Māori whare (house), indigenous architecture, tāhuhu (ridgepole), Māori cosmology, New Zealand architecture

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