In pomp, New Zealand recovers severed Maori heads
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Last Updated: Monday, January 23, 2012, 21:56
Paris: In a ceremony where music and singing mingled with calls to the spirit of ancestors, New Zealand recovered 20 mummified Maori heads on Monday that had been held in French museums for nearly two centuries.

"You are the breath of life, you, our forefathers," Derek Lardelli, a Maori elder, intoned at a packed ceremony at the Quai Branly in Paris.

"You have been in France so long," Lardelli said in Maori. "Today we will be able to bring you home, to Aotearoa," he said, using the Maori name, "The Land of the Long White Cloud," for New Zealand.

The handover gathered French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, New Zealand's ambassador to France, Rosemary Banks, and experts from French museums and Te Papa, the museum of New Zealand culture in Wellington.

The story of the heads dates back to the early exploration of New Zealand by Europeans in the 18th century.

Maori warriors tattoed their faces with elaborate designs that reflected their rank.

The heads of those killed in battle were severed and preserved, but venerated until the soul was deemed to have departed.

Fascinated by the tattoos, European seafarers bought the heads from the Maoris, who often swapped the trophies for weapons with which to fight rival tribes.

The grotesque commerce widened, and even after Britain outlawed it in 1831, the practice persisted. At its peak, Maoris would sometimes attack enemies in order to take slaves, kill them and then tattoo the severed heads for trading.

New Zealand began a campaign in the 1980s to recover the heads so that the remains could be interred with respect.

More than 200 heads, known as mokomokai, have been handed back by 14 countries, but around 500 are still in European museums, according to Te Papa.

France's cultural chiefs were sympathetic to the appeal but worried that this might set a worrying precedent for other artefacts such as Egyptian mummies and the bones of early Christian martyrs.

After a four-year wrangle, a law was passed last year that specifically approved the handover of the 20 Maori heads scattered in French museums. Experts say it is possible that other heads remain in private collections.

Rich in colour and emotion, the ceremony saw a welcome sounded on a shell and four Maori women with head-dresses made of leaves take up position at the four corners of a funeral bed covered in ferns.

"It makes no matter how you arrived in this foreign land," said Lardelli.

"Thank you, the French people. Today, the ancestors smile on you," he declared, before laying small pouches, containing a gift, at the feet of the French officials.

To verify that the heads were genuinely those of Maori, French scientists took tiny samples of DNA and matched them against Polynesian genome databases.


First Published: Monday, January 23, 2012, 21:56

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