A sensible way to reconcile Mātauranga Māori and science

October 24, 2022 • 9:45 am

I won’t explain in detail the “way of knowing” of the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand, the “traditional knowledge” of Mātauranga Māori (henceforth MM), as it’s defined in Wikipedia.  You can read all my posts about MM and its issues here (including one post yesterday).

Suffice it to say two things. MM is a mixture of real traditional knowledge (gained via trial and error) and legend, oral tradition, theology, superstition, and morality. Second, this mixture of empirical knowledge with legend, woo, and superstition is at war in New Zealand with advocates of modern science. Those who espouse MM often argue that this “way of knowing” is not only science, but should be taught as coequal to modern science in science class.

I oppose that claim, but the MM side appears to be winning. This is due largely to the willingness of the New Zealand government and universities to bow to the will of the indigenous people, who are seen as “oppressed” and therefore to be valorized, as well as to the spineless administration of The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ), which recently saw MM as coequal with science but also characterized “Western” science as “narrow and outmoded“.

Now, however, I’ve found a long and sensible article by three Māori academics that argues that the truth claims of MM must, to have any credibility in the world, be vetted by traditional methods of science. The article is at the site Te Rūnaga o Ngāi Tahu, a journal sponsored by the main Māori tribe (“iwi”) of the South Island. The authors are respected Māori scholars, and they pull no punches criticizing lax Māori scholarship as well as the RSNZ. Click to read:

First, a bit of background. In a paper published last year in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand seven Māori scholars headed by Priscilla Wehi defended the view that the ancestors of their people, the Polynesians who colonized new Zealand, discovered the continent of Antarctica in the 8th century AD. That’s a thousand years before the first established claim of the sighting of the continent—by Russians in 1820.  Three of the authors of the article above contributed to a rebuttal of the Wehi et al paper (Atholl et al. 2021), arguing that the legend was wrong and was due to credulous belief in traditional knowledge coupled with mistranslation of legends written down in the nineteenth century.  I discussed these two papers here and here.

Despite the palpable impossibility of the Wehi et al. claim, their paper was nevertheless published by the RSNZ and got a lot of publicity around the world, publicity that I documented in one of my posts. The rebuttal by Atholl et al. hardly got any notice (see below).

This conflict between fact and legend exemplifies the problems with seeing MM as “science”.  In the article above (click to read), Stevens et al. argue that MM cannot be seen as including science unless empirical claims are vetted using modern science. Under that view, the truth claims of MM can be part of science. To me, this is a refreshing point of view. Unfortunately, it seems to be the minority point of view among many NZ academics.

I’ll give some quotes from the Stevens et al. paper, who call out the original Wehi et al. paper as well as the Royal Society itself. They start by recounting the history of the “Antarctica” papers:

Written by a senior academic at the University of Otago, Priscilla Wehi, and six co-authors, this article advanced several spurious claims. Chief amongst them was that Polynesian explorers, beginning with a navigator named Hui te Rangiora, journeyed from Rarotonga into Antarctic waters ‘and perhaps even the continent likely in the early seventh century.’ The authors’ evidence? Their own inferences drawn from 1890s English translations by Percy Smith of Rarotongan narratives recorded in the 1860s. As we noted, with characteristic restraint, the authors presented this “traditional” material without nuance, qualification or critique, and based extraordinary claims upon it without commensurable evidence. For example, how the extreme practical difficulties of sailing a Polynesian waka (canoe) to and through subpolar westerlies might have been overcome.

Our view is that these Rarotongan traditions need to be critically evaluated, which is how we approached them. Having done so, we found the authors’ assertions debatable on key points of interpretation and plausibility. As Te Rangi Hīroa remarked nearly a century ago in 1926, ‘Sometimes we, or the Maori themselves, read into a tradition something that the original narrators of the tradition never attempted to convey.’

In summary, we think the Hui te Rangiora narrative is more mythic or legendary as an origin story, than historical as a voyaging narrative. Taking our methodological cue from Te Rangi Hīroa, we did not find any reference to Hui te Rangiora sailing to Antarctica. . .

You would think that settles the issue, but you’d be wrong.

The media ate up the Wehi et al. claim, and when Anderson et al. published a corrective (which the RSNZ was initially reluctant to publish), the corrective was ignored:

What was the nature and extent of the media coverage this article generated? It was, unfortunately, uncritical and celebratory. News outlets throughout New Zealand and around the world lauded the prowess of pre-modern Polynesian voyaging and the capacity of indigenous knowledge to survive colonial marginalisation and speak truth to patriarchal Western power on the dawn of the Anthropocene of its own making. A year later, the original article has been viewed nearly a whopping 19,000 times: a career-enhancing statistic by any measure.

How did the Royal Society respond to our request to publish a critical response to Wehi et al? To put it politely, utterly inconsistently with academic conventions, the principle of open debate, and the society’s stated aim of advancing and promoting the pursuit of knowledge. This attitude was unexpected, especially by Atholl and Tipene, a Fellow and Companion respectively of the Royal Society.

It was only our dogged determination that led to the eventual publication of our reply in September 2021. This has been viewed little more than 450 times, bringing to mind the quip of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, that ‘A lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.’

Fortunately, a companion article we submitted to an academic journal managed by the Scott Polar Research Institute and published by Cambridge University Press fared much better.

References and links to all three papers, including the one in Polar Record, are at the bottom.

Stevens et al. argue that while the “knowledge” bits of MM were ignored earlier because of racism, now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, so that MM is seen as valid scientific truth even if its claims can’t be verified. They describe the new Royal Society’s uncritical acceptance of Māori truth claims as “patronising”:

. . . the Royal Society has begun to unpack its role in the British colonisation of New Zealand and subjugation of Māori. This is laudable and sits behind the institution’s relatively new bicultural name.

The society has also attempted to ‘unlock the innovation potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people’ and ‘blend’ mātauranga Māori and Western science, which are suspiciously treated as bounded. No matter how well-intentioned this all might be, were he alive today, Te Rangi Hīroa would likely have some difficulties with how institutional biculturalism and “cultural awareness” has unfolded within the Royal Society, and for that matter, New Zealand’s universities. In short, uncritical acceptance of Māori knowledge is arguably just as patronising as its earlier blanket rejection. Are there other options? What approach might Te Rangi Hīroa have preferred instead? Conceivably a model based on his passage Cross-Bearings on Tradition, which has much to like about it. Describing the Māori technique of using landmarks to generate cross-bearings and thereby record and re-locate fishing grounds,

In Polynesian research, we are trying to locate some of the things that happened in the past. Tradition gives us one line along which we may venture forth, but we are not sure how far we should go. We require another line from the traditions of another branch of the race or from another branch of science. By such metaphorical cross bearings, we hope to locate the fishing grounds of the past.

This shows that not only was Te Rangi Hīroa not opposed to confirmation of Polynesian tradition through reference to other kinds of knowledge, but he felt such external cross-referencing was often crucial to the authentication and validation of Polynesian tradition.

This repeated cross-checking of historical claims is science applied to history, something that’s been done by Western historians for a long time.  So, at the end, Stevens et al. urge “replication” of historical claims by independent sources before they can be seen as true. This would negate the risible claims of Wehi et al. about the Polynesians discovering Antarctica.

Sadly, Wehi, first author of the “discovery” paper (have a look at it) got a big pile of dosh for her work, and to fund further spurious “research” (see below).  But Stevens concludes that to protect the integrity of Māori traditions and culture, truth claims cannot be seen as genuinely true unless they are vetted by the methods of modern science.

Emphasis below is mine:

With that in mind, what repercussions befall Wehi et al? Well, in November 2021, the Marsden Fund – administered by the Royal Society – awarded her and the University of Otago $660,000 for a project entitled Kaitiakitanga and Antarctic narratives. This aims to bring ‘ancestral methodologies, from pūrakau (stories) through to traditional and contemporary visual and sensory transformations of Māori knowledge, to bear on the urgent need for future reimagining of human and planetary futures.’

What can we conclude from this? Above all else, that in 2022, as in 1991, the state continues to invest significant amounts of taxpayer money into Māori-themed scholarship of questionable quality. Now, as then, Ngāi Tahu cannot rely on the New Zealand Government, or its system of higher education, to help uphold our rights and interests. At great expense to us, we ourselves are still the only ones actively protecting the integrity of our traditions and culture. That is the raison d’être of Te Pae Kōrako and the Ngāi Tahu Archive which, as with Ngāi Tahu Whakapapa and Kōtahi Mano Kāika, we will always need. Without them, we cannot hope to be a self-determining people. ‘Our ultimate duty’ indeed.

Stevens, Anderson, and Tau are to be applauded, and should be encouraged by all Kiwis (including of course the Māori) who value truth. Maintaining superstitions, fictions, and legends as “truth” not only holds back science and science education in New Zealand, but also makes the Māori look credulous: and their “ways of knowing” more an unsupported religion than a melange of beliefs that contains some empirical truth.


Anderson, Atholl, Tipene O’Regan, Puamiria Parata-Goodall, Michael Stevens and Te Maire Tau. 2021 “A southern Māori perspective on stories of Polynesian polar voyaging.Polar Record 57: 1-3.

Anderson, Atholl, Sir Tipene O’Regan, Puamiria Parata-Goodall, Michael Stevens, and Te Maire Tau.  2021.  “On the improbability of pre-European Polynesian voyages to Antarctica: a response to Priscilla Wehi and colleagues.” Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand: 1-7. [This link might work better for some readers. GCM]

Wehi, Priscilla M., Nigel J. Scott, Jacinta Beckwith, Rata Pryor Rodgers, Tasman Gillies, Vincent Van Uitregt, and Krushil Watene. 2021. “A short scan of Māori journeys to Antarctica.” Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand: 1-12.

18 thoughts on “A sensible way to reconcile Mātauranga Māori and science

    1. Rather like the attempts to reconcile science and religion. Noting that Mendel was a monk is going to be a poor second-best to discovering that prayers to one particular god result in 32% more positive outcomes than prayers to a presumably lesser god.

  1. I hope that WEIT readers will join me in my campaign to restore the medieval European belief system to its rightful place as co-equal with modern science and the Enlightenment outlook. To start with, we note that medieval art and literature contained many detailed accounts of visits to Heaven, all long before Dante [e.g., see Eileen Gardiner, ed., Medieval Visions of Heaven and Hell: A Sourcebook (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993) ]. These accounts clearly imply extra-terrestrial voyages by medieval explorers, perhaps to the moon or other planets. We expect government support to help us continue to investigate these aspects of Matauranga Medieval. We will also publicize the medieval advances in medical science, such as prayer, blood-letting, and the curative use of holy relics. And we will of course emphasize how the medieval outlook, free of cars, trucks, container ships, airplanes, pipelines, cellphones, and Verizon, enabled medieval humans to maintain a harmonious stewardship of the natural environment.

  2. A thing that could be tried with all that money would be to attempt to reproduce the voyage that is claimed to have found Antarctica. In essence, this would be a south-bound Kon-Tiki expedition. But they better have a modern ship sailing nearby because it will be dangerous.

      1. I don’t understand why the MM advocates make such a big deal of the supposed Maori “discovery” of Antarctica. In the unlikely event that an off-course canoe did stray down into the Southern Ocean and then managed to make it back again – so what? The Maoris never went on to settle in Antarctica, never exploited it, never learned anything about it or told anyone else it was there. All these things had to wait until Europeans arrived on the scene. In other words, if it did happen, it was a “discovery” of no significance whatsoever.

  3. I want the original colonisers of my land to be appreciated properly. They may be short and stocky, and perhaps a bit hairy. But they knew their mammoths better than any of you “wise men” and they didn’t talk your ear off down at the spring when you needed a drink. Let’s hear it for Neanderthal Knowledge!

  4. Well, this is at least something. And good on them. I grew up reading much of the mythology and enjoyed the stories, as stories.

    A bit off but if it ends up the way we fear it may I say New Zealand and it’s official scientific and educational institutions, including Te Papa which now has a creation narrative of sorts in its natural history wing should be blacklisted at large by the rest of the world and only independent scientists who work alone being accepted.

    What do you guys say, blacklist us? I won’t take it as an offence, I’d applaud you!

  5. As one who knows the story from the New Zealand end, I appreciate once more your excellent overview and analysis, Jerry. Just one phrase I’d have put otherwise. You write

    the MM side appears to be winning. This is due largely to the willingness of the New Zealand government and universities to bow to the will of the indigenous people, who are seen as “oppressed” and therefore to be valorized

    I’d say something like “to bow to the will of those claiming to represent the indigenous people.” There are many Māori, including experts in mātauranga Māori, who recognise its difference from science, and the dangers to both science and MM of the enforced grafting of one on to the other. There are too few, though, who say this as publicly as Michael Stevens, Te Maire Tau, and Atholl Anderson.

    1. What’s the betting that most of the people pushing MM as science equivalent are not Māori, but white people self flagellating because of some imagined original sin inherited from their ancestors who oppressed the Māori?

      1. Such as white people with pink hair. But they are not flagellating themselves. On the contrary, they are awarding themselves virtue points for flagellating other white people, including most especially those who are long dead, and were thus guilty of creating the “systemic” oppression of the month.

        1. Precisely. It’s a cheap and relatively safe way to gain personal power- fight others’ “battles” that really aren’t battles and that the “others” don’t want fought for them. A novel way for crackpots to rise in might and stature, often becoming rich through the sales of books (“White Fragility” anyone?) and shout their crackpottery from the rooftops, riding on the shoulders of the deeply ignorant social media mobs.

          1. Well, we’re all a little guilty of being pretentious and self-righteous here, I admit I am and regard myself as the better man for at being open about being an SOB sometimes.

            No shame in it, if it’s for a cause you believe in, and that is for both sides. But I respect those who admit they can be jerks about it. I’m one and fine with it.

  6. Now there is drama on two whale related issues here. One is a whale that was beached and the second about some whale fossils that I doubt were of much vale scientifically but were a local landmark since the 1950s (I’m surprised they haven’t eroded away) being removed under complex circumstances.

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