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Medicine Amongst the Maoris, in Ancient and Modern Times

Ancient drugs

page 67

Ancient drugs.

The whole system of Maori medicine rested upon the exorcism of disease demons. "The medicine for the ailments of the Maori", as many a Maori has told me, significantly pointing to his protruded tongue, "was this". In other words it was the incantations backed up by the power of the tohungas, that cured. It follows of necessity that the value of drugs was but little explored. I heartily concur with Elsdon Best1 in saying that in ancient times the Maoris had very few drugs. From ancient Maori lore we have very little to learn in the way of new drugs to add to the Pharmacopeia. The New Zealand flora may enrich our materia medica but we will not get the information from Maori lore. Dr.2 Goldie has given an extensive list, and regretted that he had not sufficient time to arrange numerous other notes which he had on the subject. I have, myself, collected notes on innumerable p plants that have been used by Maoris of the present day as medicines for all conceivable ailments. Many are boiled together in certain proportions, and to many of these compounds, copper sulphate, magnesium sulphate, port wine, brandy and other European ingredients are added. Few of them can survive a cross-examination as to their antiquity and I have come to the conclusion that, with few exceptions, all the so-called Maori medicines have originated since the advent of the Europeans. A description of them does not legitimately belong to this paper. The drugs that will bear scrutiny were used for:-

(a)diarrhoea (korere, torohi & c.)
(b)donstipation (puru)
(c)wounds, fractures, bruises, and perhaps
(d)skin diseases

The ordinary forms of the above being perhaps looked upon as often free from supernatural influence and being amongst the commonest ailments, were more likely to be treated outside the ordinary mathod of exorcising. It must be rem-page 68embered, however, that should any of the above prove obstinate and intractable, they were at once invested with a super-natural causation.

(1)Koromiko (Veronica salicifolia)

The young leaves and shoots were chewed for diarrhoea. It is a useful astringent, and is often used by European bushmen.

(2)Harakeke (Phormium tenax)

The root was chewed, or a decoction made for use in constipation.


Ah infusion was made from any of the following for use in bathing outs, bruises, swellings, or the swollen sites of fractures after they had been put up in splints:-

  • Rata (Metresideres robasta)
  • Kowhai (Edwarsia microphylla)
  • Ngaio (Myoporum latum)

For skin diseases the rata, Kowhai, ngaio, mahoe and some of the weeds were used. In the case of the trees, the outer bark was scraped off, and the more delicate inner portion of the bark scraped into shreds. The juice was expressed upon the sores and some of the bruised softened shreds of inner bark covered over the affected parts. In the case of weeds, such as kohukohu, the leaves were warmed on live embers and applied warm.

No doubt there were other medicines used, but they are of no scientific importance.

The ancient Maori had no cooking utensils. The method of cooking was by steaming on hot stones in the 'umu' or 'hangi', or by grilling. The only method of making an infusion was by putting the bruised bark, root or leaves into a wooden vessel with cold water and then heating the water by dropping in red hot stones. What with adhering ashes and embers, the decoction would not be very inviting whilst the considerable time and labour involved would serve to restrict research along this line. When European pots, and the fashion of drinking medicine were introduced, experiment was stim-page 69ulated with the result that almost every tree or shrub, singly or in combination, has some alleged medicinal virtue. But, I would repeat again, these ideas are modern.

1 Maori Medical Lore. (Elsdon Best. Jour. Poly. See.)

2 Maori Medical Lore. (Dr Goldie. Trans N.Z. Instit.)