The strangeness of Hoeroa


A few days back I was Googling ‘Maori artworks’ when I came across an artifact called Hoeroa. Nowadays, a weapon is a medium for business. Back then, it was a means for representing the art and culture of each tribe. I researched a little about this artifact and found out that it has often been deemed rather ‘peculiar’ (Best, 1902). The elaboration follows.

Basic specifications

Hoeroa has primarily and evidently been perceived as a weapon which still characterizes a sense of mysticism in its utility. The artifact weapon was reportedly made from sperm whale’s rib. Sperm whales were referred to as paraoa in the Maori language and thereby the weapon was also known as ‘tatu paraoa’. Hoeroa was found extensively in New Zealand in both the islands (Golson, 1960). The weapon ranged from four to six feet in length but commonly was about five feet long (Best, 1902). The width used to be of two inches and it was mainly flat, being curved and not straight in structure.

A major specimen of this rare artifact was discovered in the collection of Reischek found in the Naturhistorische museum at Vienna. The item found is brownish-yellow in color and developed from whalebone. Its length is of 152 cm. and its base is curved (Firth, 1931). It contains the initials W.P.G. along with an inscription which informs that it was made by the Ngapuhi tribe during the ancient times. The weapon was captured by the tribe of Ngati Mahuta when it went into a war against the Ngapuhi tribe. It was then at a later point of time brought under the possession of King Tawhiao of Whatiwhatihoi pa, and the inscription was recorded in the year 1882 (Firth, 1931).

A peculiar artifact

The peculiarity of the item emerged from its structural trait of one end being sharpened to a certain point then kept blunt, that is the points did not merge to a single point as is general in most handheld weapons. The literary translation of the word is “long paddle” (Banks, 1770), which is an entirely different interpretation from that of a weapon. The end was tapered in thickness to bring a certain edge, but the thickness was not completely withdrawn and the width was almost carried right throughout the material.

The exact usage of a Hoeroa is still not articulated with ample proof supporting the claims. However, the pieces of evidence primarily available put the inclinations towards its utility of being as a weapon, though its non-weapon-like structure makes the claim a little hazy. Researchers are still nebulous regarding how an almost blunt object like this can be useful at times of war, though the fact that it is difficult to defend and can be used from a distance at positions where hand weapons like knives could not be used support the claim of its usage as a weapon.

From throwing to impaling

The utility of the Hoeroa has been reported to be of diverse nature and variations, ranging from being applied as a spear meant for stabbing to being implemented as a missile and striking weapon. The weapon was carried mainly in the right hand (Best, 1902), and was attached to the warrior by being fastened by a cord into his girdle. The other end of the ‘taura’, as was the cord called in the language, was attached to the blunt butt end of the Hoeroa by being secured into a hole drilled into the material’s end. The throwing of the weapon was mainly underhand, and if properly cast was hard to be defended.

The Hoeroa was not as common in usage as the hand weapons like taiaha, but it had a higher notch of distinction because of its rare mode of operation. The most significant advantage of the Hoeroa as a weapon was its ability to be used from a distance due to which it can be classified under the projectile category (Best, 1902) and was implemented as throwing and retrieving weapon element. The retrieving process was executed by pulling the lanyard, manufactured from flax that was tied to the peak holes drilled into the whale rib from which it used to get made. A warrior used to hide by lying on the platform within the palisade and fix a position from where he could pierce his Hoeroa through the fence towards the enemy (Papakura, 1938). The Hoeroa was tied to his waist and aided him in undergoing the throwing and retrieving process. Then finding the opportunity, he used to hurl the weapon through the opening against the enemy and withdrew it after causing the damage. The sudden sharp strike denoted that the attack from this long weapon caught the enemies defenseless and that was the trait that was characterized by the Hoeroa in the form of fear from the absence of defense.

Another form of its use was against those trying to flee during a war or at times of pursuit (Hiroa, 1949). Such an action could be executed without diminishing the attacker’s speed and such an advantage was provided by its length. While pursuing, the attacker could drag the Hoeroa into his hand by pulling the lanyard without interrupting his pursuit. Such a trait is rare in a weapon and that is what makes Hoeroa so special. Also, disturbingly, the weapon reportedly was used to kill women by the process of impaling (Smith, 1901).

A vicious war

The weapon was reported to be used by Te Au-whiowhio belonging to the Puketapu pa settlement to defend himself when he was attacked by Whakapa with a taiaha (Best, 1902). When Ngai-Tama-oki sub tribe was defeated by the Nga-Maihi tribe, the fight’s news reached to the ears of Whakapa belonging to Te Pahipoto, while he was busy preparing a new taiaha for himself. He immediately called his men and started heading towards Puketapu (Best, 1903). The Nga-Maihi saw this and left the fort to advance towards the attacking tribe. Whakapa marched out of the formation of his tribe. The tribe was attacking towards the fort in a column formation, termed as matua. Te Au-whiowhio also left his Nga-Maihi tribe and headed towards facing Whakapa. The two men met at an empty space within the battlefield and initiated a singular form of combat, called tau mataki tahi. Te Au was struck rapidly with a taiaha by Whakapa (Best, 1903). But Te Au not only defended himself with his Hoeroa but also succeeded in landing blows over his adversary and finally defeating Whakapa with it (Best, 1902). Te Au, with point and guard, pierced into the ribs of Whakapa by thrusting the sharp blade of the Hoeroa (Best, 1903). Whakapa could not recover and his tribe Te Pahipoto lost as a result. Such an occurrence proves the weapon’s versatility of usage.

As collection and tradition

A Hoeroa was said to have been gifted by a Maori chief to Queen Victoria when the former made a visit to England (Oldman, 1937). In 1948 the item was again brought back to New Zealand as a part of the Pacific and Maori artifact collection associated with Oldman (te papa, n.a.). Thus the weapon was perceived as an heirloom deemed to be prestigious (te papa, n.a.). It was primarily carried by men who ranked highly within the hierarchy and the item bore evidence of their prestige and authority within the society. The art of using it was then transferred by this head of the settlement to his sons, along with training them to use other weapons like taiaha and kotaha.




Banks, J (1962). The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768-1771. London: Angus and Robertson. pp. 112-117.

Best, E. (1903).  Notes on the art of war as conducted by the Maori of New Zealand: Part VIII. The Journal of Polynesian Society. 12 (4), pp. 193-217.

Best, E. (1902). Notes on the art of war, as conducted by the Maori of New Zealand, with accounts of various customs, rites, superstitions, & c., pertaining to war, as practiced and believed in by the ancient Maori. The Journal of Polynesian Society. 11 (4), pp. 219-246.

Firth, R. (1931). MAORI MATERIAL IN THE VIENNA MUSEUM.. The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 40 (159), pp. 95-102.

Golson, J. (1960). Archaeology, tradition and myth in New Zealand prehistory. The Journal of Polynesian Society. 69 (4), pp. 380-403.

Hiroa, R (1949). The Coming of the Maori. Wellington: Maori Purposes Fund Board. pp. 272.

Papakura, M (1938). The Old Time Maori. London: Victor Gollancz Limited . pp. 144-45.

Shawcross, W. (1970). THE CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY COLLECTION OF MAORI ARTEFACTS, MADE ON CAPTAIN COOK’S FIRST VOYAGE. The Journal of Polynesian Society. 79 (3), pp. 305-348.

Smith, S., P. (1901). Wars of the northern against the southern tribes of New Zealand in the nineteenth century. The Journal of Polynesian Society. 10 (1), pp. 21-49.

te papa. (n.a.). Hoeroa (throwing weapon). Available: Last accessed 30th May, 2019.

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