There is a legend that carving was discovered by Ruatepupuke. He rescued his son Manuruhi who was in the carved underwater village of the god of the sea Tangaroa. This legend leads to carving being seen as a ‘divine gift’ from the gods that was handed down from the ancestors. This art form therefor required spiritual respect.
Traditionally the carving is done in wood, stone, or bone. The Māori Rennaisance led to an increased interest in many Māori practices, one of them being Toi Whakairo (art carving). Adzes and chisels were traditionally used to do the carving. The tools were originally made from stone or pounamu (greenstone or jade) and later on metals was also use when the Europeans brought metal to New Zealand. Once the carvers experienced the metal tools, they became highly demanded as they could be made to be much sharper than stone, and they held their edge better. The adzes were used to cut the basic shape, and then the chisels were used for the finer detail.
Only the carver could use his tools, and on one else was allowed to use them without the carver’s permission. This is because the tools acquired the ‘tapu’ of the carver. Tapu means sacred; under religious restriction.
The earliest Māori carvings found look very similar to the carvings found on other Polynesian islands, including Hawaii.
Food storehouses (pātaka) and war canoes (waka taua) would be elaborately carved in order to show the wealth and mana of the tribe. Mana means authority, power, psychic force, or prestige. Different regions and different tribes each had their own unique style of carving.
The most well-known carvers in recent times include:
- Raharuhi Rukupo (d. 1873)
- Tene Waitere (1853–1931)
- Hori Pukehika (d. 1932)
- Eramiha Neke Kapua (1867–1955)
- Pine Taiapa (1901–1972)
- Piri Poutapu (1905–1975)
- Hone Taiapa (1911–1979)
- Inia Te Wiata (1915–1971)