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Moriori: Origins, Lifestyles and Language

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Rhys Richards
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Although they were the last part of the habitable world to receive human residents, the Chatham Islands at 44 degrees south, are windy and wet, but in no way sub-Antarctic. Tradition records that four double-canoes drifted to ‘Rekohu’, apparently before AD 1500, after which no further canoes and people arrived for three to four hundred years. The canoe people were all East Polynesians who mixed to become Tch Hiti and later were called Moriori. Despite their tropical origins, they soon developed sophisticated lifestyles as efficient hunter-gatherers who shifted from place to place in small groups to make the best use of seasonably available resources. Their foods came mainly from the sea and the lakes, plus prolific kopi nuts and fern roots. They developed simple tools well suited to their mobile lifestyles. There were at least 2,000 Moriori when the first foreigners visited in 1791, followed by sealers from about 1810. Two Maori tribes fleeing from musket wars in New Zealand invaded Rekohu in 1835. The Moriori, a very sacred people, obeyed their traditional vows never to kill anyone, so not one of the Maori invaders was killed. However in order to establish their perceived rights of conquest, the Maori killed over 200 Moriori and enslaved the survivors, who were often treated harshly. Few Moriori women had Moriori children. Slavery continued until 1855 and intimidation until about 1870. By then most of the Moriori had died, disheartened and deserted by their gods, while foreign diseases killed many. The few Moriori who had survived, under 100, were treated as doomed, and in 1870 the Land Courts allowed them only 3% of their former land. The last Moriori without any foreign genes died in 1933. By then the Moriori language was extinct. A few words had been collected before 1887, but no grammar. These remnants show that the Moriori language was closely similar to Maori, but with very different pronunciation, and was also similar to the old language of Easter Island.