France Returns Maori Head
Historically, Maori warriors of New Zealand would tattoo their faces with elaborate geometric designs to show their rank. These tattoos were permanent, and unlike modern tattoos on the skin, were etched on the skull. When they died in a battle, their heads were preserved to keep their spirits alive and were considered sacred.
The tattooed heads (skulls), known as "toi moko", became an object of fascination for European explorers. They started collecting and trading them after they colonized New Zealand in the 18th century. The first recording of a Maori warrior's head appears in the diaries of one of the members of Captain James Cook's expeditions. Over time, these tattooed heads made their way into museums in Europe and into private collections.
New Zealand began a campaign to have them returned in the 1980s, and while most countries had done so, France had refused to - until recently. Just last week, the first head of a warrior from a museum in Rouen, France was returned to Maori elders in a traditional ceremony. French museums have agreed to return the remaining "toi mokos" by 2012.
Who are the Maoris?
Maoris are the native people of New Zealand, an island country close to Australia. Their ancestors were the Polynesians from small islands in the South Pacific. New Zealand was one of the last islands to be settled -- it is believed that the first canoes touched the shore only a 1000 years ago.
The settlers lived in isolation, developing their own language, a rich mythology, arts and crafts. They continued to follow the tribal way society that they brought with them. As the tribes went to war with each other, a fierce warrior culture emerged. The first Europeans arrived in New Zealand in the 17th century and the country came under British rule in 1840. The Maoris have gradually adopted many aspects of Western society and culture, and the two societies have co-existed since.
Today, they make up 15% of the country's population, and are a big source of tourism revenue as visitors come to experience the unique customs and culture of the Maoris. The Maori society is not without its problems and New Zealand's government is trying to bridge the gap between the Maoris and other New Zealanders.
How were the heads preserved?
The Maoris preserved the heads, much like Egyptians did with the mummies. When someone with an upper class standing died, the internal organs in the head were removed and all openings sealed with fiber and gum. The head was then smoked over an open fire, dried in the sun for several days and then treated with shark oil.
Such preserved heads would be kept by their families in ornately-carved boxes and brought out only for sacred ceremonies. The heads of enemy chiefs killed in battle were also preserved and were important in diplomatic negotiations between warring tribes, with the return and exchange of heads being an essential condition for peace.