Just what is Matauranga Maori?

What exactly is Mātauranga Māori? At its most basic principle, it is knowledge accumulated in a Māori way.

I think people (some of the scientific community) are confused about what they think Mātauranga Māori is.

Maybe some people think its just our legend stories – and it is that.

Maybe some people think its just cultural practices like pohiri – and it is that.

Maybe some people think its just kapahaka – and it is that.

Maybe some people think its just hocus pocus magic – and it is that too!

It is many things, but the one thing I want to highlight and I want people to know, is that Mātauranga Māori is completely, utterly and unequivocally also scientific. Renowned astrological expert Rereata Makiha comments on the disdain Māori knowledge has had to face;

“Kua roa ra i te ao Pākeha, e taunu ana, e whakaiti ana, e whakaparahako ana, i nga Mātauranga a te Māori. Ina whakarongo rātou ki nga kōrero a tātou nei pūrākau, ka kiia nei, he marahau, korekua i ngā kōrero he hua kei ena kōrero, he ‘myths’ noa iho. He nui nga akoranga kei roto i ngā pūrākau, hei ako i a tātou, me pehea te tirotiro i te taiao, me pehea te tirotiro me whakamahi i te Mātauranga Māori hei arataki i tẽtahi kaupapa e kore taea te ao pūtaiao Pākeha te tirotiro.”

For a long time, Pākeha scoffed at Māori knowledge. When they hear of our knowledge, they dismiss the merits of those stories, labelling them myths. However, vast learnings are held within those stories. They teach us how to read and interpret the environment. They provided us with evidence that Western science cannot determine.

This attitude of not taking Mātauranga Māori seriously, is based on perpetuating colonialism and racism.

If Mātauranga Māori has a scientific aspect to it, what then is science? Science according to the British Council in 2009 is

the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence’.

Make, no mistake, Māori had/has scientifically, evidence based practices in their society. Traditionally, Māori communities had long-term relationships with a piece of territory. Over time they observed the bio-life within that terrain. That’s what we call in research, a longitudinal study – a scientific method FYI. But our ‘longitudinal’ went over multiple generations.

Māori had extremely sophisticated and scientific classification systems for plants, bird and insects. The average Maori could rattle off 300 plant names. Different types of flax could be classified into categories to represent different traits its fiber might provide, such as softness, durability, length, water resistance etc. That took experimentation, observation and testing.

Matauranga Māori accumulates overtime. The above table represents how this looks when segmented over four time periods; ancient knowledge, traditional knowledge, contemporary knowledge, future knowledge. Oral traditions through karakia (prayer), mōteatea (chants), whaikōrero (oratory) etc. enabled record keeping and logging of Māori and their biosphere’s natural marvels. This accumulative experience and observation based on intimate relationships with the natural world allowed for rich, in-depth and intensive analysis by Māori to produce knowledge that is quite often outside of the scope of Western scientific tools.

Māori had hundreds of names for different types of winds, helping them to predict what climate would be arriving. That took an acute amount of observation and homing in of the senses. Also, they had hundreds and hundreds of names to describe different types of soils, because this helped determined what the earth would be good for growing high quality food. This required experimentation with growing of certain types of foods etc. I could go on and on providing examples. But sounds like science to me.

How do people think Māori survived upon arriving to New Zealand with out some systematic observations, experimentations and hypothesis about living in quite extreme climates and geographically rough terrain? Do people think Māori just woke up each day and tried to wing it? No. We provided ourselves with structured observation, experimentation and tests leading to evidence based practice and knowledge.

What ‘Western Science’ did do was provide some of the labels and names, and the development for the suite of techniques that investigate phenomena (but other nations also contributed there too). Remember how back in school, and in your math’s class you were always asked to provide your workings for how you arrived at your answer? The scientific method is about coming up with an answer, but you have to show how you got there and then suggest why that happened (the theory). Academia provides central hubs globally for people to share their findings and debate those answers and workings.

In some ways Matauranga Maori can do what pure science cannot. Nature is complex. Mātauranga Māori accepts and accommodates this complexity, which our leading expert on Māori wellbeing, Mason Durie frames under two dominating knowledge creating principles. Principle one, whanaungatanga – connections through kinship and linkages – refers to interdependency between people and their external world. People are considered more than their individual ‘selves’, to be understood through the links that go beyond them, such as their whakapapa (genealogy), and this same idea extends into the natural world. Life, Durie says “…is best understood by the relationships that exist beyond people and their environments.”

Tāwhiowhio – his second principle – similarly relates to learning and thinking from looking outside of and beyond ourselves. The search for meaning then differs from the often Western style, or reductionist approach that keeps narrowing down things to analyse it in divided parts.

So Matauranga Maori has a scientific part to it. But it is bigger than just science, more than pure science. It is about piecing life together to make us feel whole and connected.


Hikuroa, D. (2017). Mātauranga Māori—the ūkaipō of knowledge in New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand47(1), 5-10.

Wright, Kereama (2018). Rereata Makiha. Waka Huia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBisUbuGMNA

A Guide to Vision Matauranga: Lessons from Maori Voices in the New Zealand Science Sector. http://www.maramatanga.co.nz/sites/default/files/Rauika%20Ma%CC%84ngai_A%20Guide%20to%20Vision%20Ma%CC%84tauranga_FINAL.pdf

British Science Council. 2009. Our definition of science [Internet]; [cited 2016 Jul 29]. Available from: http://sciencecouncil.org/about-us/our-definition-of-science/