Chapter 1

Aotearoa before the computer

W Winiata

Whatarangi Winiata holds a PhD in Finance and is a Fellow Chartered Accountant. He is tumuaki (chairman) of the Department of Accountancy at Victoria University. He also has wide ranging interests in Māori culture and the heritage of the Māori people being Kaiwhakaako (Instructor), Te Wānanga 0 Raukawa (University of Raukawa).

This review of the information systems of the Māori is, at once, both larger and lesser than the theme on which I was invited to write, namely, ‘New Zealand before the Computer’. It is larger in that it is more venturesome than was anticipated, surveying territory hitherto unexplored by specialists in computers and information systems, and I hope that they will forgive the intrusions by this non-specialist.

It is lesser in two ways. Firstly, the range of experience on which it focuses is peculiar to only one section of the population of Aotearoa, namely, the Māori. Secondly, it lays stress on the storage and transmission of information, this being a vital aspect of Māori information systems.

A short review of the whakapapa of the family of electronic computers which exist in this country in 1985 would start in the 1960s. Indeed, it is customary to refer to the machines of that era as first generation computers. A long view of computer ancestry would, of course, take us back 120 generations or more to the origins of the abacus and beyond. Here I have taken the short-view on computer ancestry and a long-view on Aotearoa before the computer! It is not possible and, for our purposes, not necessary to document and to date the development of Māori information systems. We know, of course, that the process began well before the 1960s.

Any accumulation of information which is accessible to the possessor or to others is an information system, regardless of the type of information being stored or the method of storage. It follows that we have had human information systems for as long as we, as a species, have had the dual capacity to store information and to retrieve it as needed. It also follows that the nature of such systems and of their development will be as diverse as the human cultural scene, because the choice of information to be stored is determined by its prospective users and the method of storage chosen is from the options available to them. The users, their needs and their options are culture specific.

Information systems evolve in response to the needs of the community and, in turn, to the extent that community-wide planning occurs, the design and performance of information systems influence community progress and development. Accordingly, the extent to which a community will find it necessary and desirable to centralise its information system will be a function of the need for community-wide planning and monitoring. In the Māori case, planning was done by whānau (family), hapū (sub-tribe), iwi (tribe), or rūnanga (confederation of iwi) or waka (canoe grouping). Thus, Māori information systems were centred on the whānau, hapū, iwi or waka and their content was a reflection of what was seen to be important at each of these operating levels. Finally, given that the culture had not designed a written language the Māori had to rely heavily on the memorising capacity of the mind for storage and on a variety of external stimuli to assist with the process of retrieval.

The Pākehā arrived in Aotearoa with a written language and with well established information systems which employed this tool. The advancement of these systems occurred concurrently with advances around the globe and while some original contributions from Aotearoa to the world-wide enhancement of knowledge of computers and information systems have been identified, it is largely true that the Pākehā community has adopted processes refined elsewhere in the world.

We have observed that the human mind was the memory bank for the information system of the Māori. The task of selecting the minds to be developed to serve this purpose and of training those minds was assigned to te whare wananga, the school of learning, the object of which was:

To preserve all desirable knowledge and to hand it down free of any alteration, omission interpolation or deterioration.

These would be worthy objects of any information system. We would want all desirable knowledge to be stored safely and its preservation to be assured. Moreover, we would like to guarantee that the integrity of this knowledge is maintained for succeeding generations of users. We have learned, however, that the analysis of alternative computer installations is complicated and that the choice of the ‘right’ facility difficult and risky even though the fundamental requirements, namely, to store and dispense information, are explicit. The Māori had a similar problem. Not every member of a whānau, hapū, iwi, rūnanga or waka had the requisite mental skills, namely, to store large amounts of knowledge and to recall and transmit it with absolute accuracy.

Consequently, the selection of storers and dispensers of knowledge was of major importance. It is clear that the commitment of those chosen had to be substantial and the energy expended in fulfilling the job must have been considerable even for the most talented. We have some insights into the remarkable accomplishments of some such people from the research of Elsdon Best who for two decades or more assiduously observed and recorded Māori life. In his monograph on te whare wananga he reports that during one winter he obtained from one Māori elder the words of ‘no less than 406 songs, together with much information of an explanatory nature pertaining to them. All of these songs were given from memory — not one was in written form’.

A measure of this accomplishment can be obtained from the compilation of waiata (songs) known as Nga Moteatea, in which 300 songs with explanatory notes occupy 450 pages of printed text of which half is in Māori. This example given by Best implies a memory capacity of more than 300 pages of printed Māori text for the songs (460 of them) mentioned above.

In a second illustration of memorising power Best cites one person occupying three days of a sitting of a commission on land ownership while ‘… he traced the descent of his people from an ancestor who flourished 34 generations ago. The result was a long table of innumerable branch lines, of a multitude of affinitive ramifications’. In this instance the witness gave ‘… much evidence as to occupation, extra-tribal marriages … and the genealogical table contained well over 1400 names’.

To the modern computer the task of storing the words and explanatory notes of 400 songs occupying 300 or more pages of print and of 34 generations of people and their activities would be trivial. However, the following challenges could be more than the most sophisticated computer is able to handle:

To programme all possible cross references,

To capture the tunes of these songs,

To record and be able to reproduce the mood and rhythm that accompanies each song or recital of whakapapa with the speed and spontaneity (of retrieval) of those cited by Elsdon Best, and

To exercise the appropriate culturally-determined restrictions or control in the sharing of the knowledge.

The major institution in the transmission process was, as we observed, te whare wananga (school of learning) wherein knowledge, under varying restrictive prac­tices associated with different levels of tapu (sacredness), was taught to highly restricted and carefully selected classes. Very few people were entrusted with esoteric knowledge which was tapu (sacred) and could be transmitted and received only by people who, themselves, were in a state of tapu (sacredness). It is not possible for a computer to be tapu and we have learned that security (and control) of computerised information systems is extremely difficult to guarantee. Māori information systems, of course, were impenetrable if the repository resolved that it should be that way.

For any particular whānau, hapū, iwi, rūnanga or waka there was the constant search for candidates for te whare wananga for training to ensure that their respective information systems were maintained and that the content of these systems was transmitted in their entirety from one generation to the next.

Even in the most carefully managed situations there is always the risk that information will be lost, or that during storage or transmission it will change and become less reliable. Written or computerised information systems face these prospects as did the Māori systems; however, one would suspect, that, where these problems occur they are easier to find in the modern computerised systems than they were in the Māori.

Regrettably, we are not able always to detect the existence of unreliable infor­mation or, indeed, to distinguish between reliable and unreliable interpretations of information even where its integrity has remained intact.

The point has been made that Māori information systems were decentralised. Local whānau, hapū, iwi, rūnanga or waka had their own versions of whakapapa, waiata, karakia (formularies or prayers) and descriptions of events. In a rather mechanistic but substantial research undertaken to gain deeper insights into the traditional accounts of the great migration, Simmons establishes criteria by which to evaluate local, typically waka, traditions. His criteria were the following:

Occurrence in a number of sources (particularly of other waka). Occurrence in songs and chants (particularly those performed publically and as karakia).

Persistence to present times (or traditional knowledge). Occurrence in early sources.

Genealogical validation.

In the application of these criteria, a task which would have been greatly assisted by the use of a modern computer, Simmons concludes that the explorer Kupe was in Aotearoa 400 years later than the dating given by Percy Smith and taught to everyone since. A major point from his research is that the Māori information systems including, of course, their content, have more consistency than the interpretations assigned to them by Percy Smith and others.

With all this material to be remembered it is not surprising that the Māori resorted to external aids to memory. In the remarkable collection of studies of Māori life by Elsdon Best which are built on observations, analyses, descriptions and debates of subjects ranging from schools of esoteric learning to games and pastimes, from fishing methods (and devices) to agriculture, from the lore of the untamed forest to the ways of the orderly pa (village), from the tihei (sneeze) of human birth to the mauri (life essence) of stone implements, from marae fixtures (including storehouses and kindred structures) to the mobile waka (canoe) we find his writings woven together by waiata, karakia, whakatauki (proverbs) and whakapapa. These waiata, karakia, whakatauki and whakapapa were part of an elaborate framework of aids to the human memory.

Another scholar, Pei Te Hurinui well-known on the marae and in the academic community of Aotearoa, recognized the importance of the ‘genealogical method’ for ‘fixing the sequence of events’ and published the following illustration:

In the Maniapoto tribal history there are the well-known marriages of the eponymous ancestor, Maniapoto; firstly to the great-granddaughter, Hinewhatihua, of his elder half-brother, Te Ihingarangi; and, later, to the daughter, Paparauwhare, of Hinewhatihua by a former marriage. History relates that Te Ihingarangi was already a grandfather when his half-brother Maniapoto was born. This is the whakapapa:

Uetarangore was the son of Tutarawa a younger brother of Hineaupounamu, the mother of Tutakamoana and Rora have intermarried and under their hapu names of Ngati Tuta­kamoana and Ngati Rora are the most numerous of our Ngati Maniapoto subtribes with their main marae Te Tokanganui-a-noho at Te Kuiti. The writer is a member of both hapu.

Raymond Firth, in his classical study of the economics of the Māori, refers to the use of mnemonic devices and cites the naming of meeting houses and of carvings and other art work therein as reminders of ancestors, events and circumstances. Descriptive labels for places, names for people or roles for gods served as reminders of outcomes, activities or prescriptions. Another well documented example of the aids used to assist memory is provided by the research of Saul Riesenberg. He describes some of the mnemonic devices and systems of classification employed by the navigators of the atoll of Puluwat (Central Caroline Islands) to arrange their knowledge of geography and of star courses into organised bodies of data. His research provides some idea of the extraordinary quantity of information learned by qualified navigators and of the imagery employed in order to retain it in memory and to order the items into manageable inventories of knowledge.

Mnemonic (and other) aids to human memory systems spanned the full range of human endeavour with the effect of expanding the effective memory capacity. This technique is well known but in terms of straight memory capacity it is difficult to imagine any multiplicative system giving a human mind more storage and retrieval power than the established computers of 1985. However, an information system at any level of Māori organisation be it whānau, hapū, iwi, rūnanga or waka, with well selected human repositories of information fully trained in mnemonic and other systems of memory aids and in a state of tape would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate even on our most sophisticated computers. We are told that is the covert meaning of the fact rather than its overt and obvious meaning which is important in poetry…’

We could perhaps sum all this up by observing that, whereas the modern com­puter is variously described as:

human superhuman subhuman extra human

or inhuman

only the first of these adjectives applies to the Māori information system. It was highly decentralised and was founded on knowledge inherited from Io (the Supreme Being) some of which could not possibly have been shared with, or replicated by, a machine.

Māori information systems which, regrettably, are in disarray would have been, and still could be, greatly strengthened by the modern computer. In the next quarter century some of us will try to ensure that this will occur.


Elsdon Best, The Maori School of Learning: Its Objects, Methods and Ceremonial, Wellington, Government Printer, 1959

AT Ngata and P Te H Jones (ed) Nga Moteatea, Wellington, The Polynesian Society Inc, Vol. I–III

DR Simmons, The Great New Zealand Myth, Wellington, AH and A Reed, 1976

Pei Te Hurinui, ‘Maori Genealogies’, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 67, No. 2 (June 1958)

Raymond Firth, Economics of the New Zealand Maori, Wellington, Government Printer, 1959

Saul H Riesenberg, ‘The Organisation of Navigational Knowledge on Puluwat’, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 81, No 1 (March 1972)

SM Mead, ‘Imagery, Symbolism and Social Values in Maori Chants’, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 78, No 3 (September 1969)

Donald H Sanders, Computers in Society, Sydney, McGraw-Hill. 1973