By Laura Goodall 09/06/2016

For astronomy researcher Dr Rangi Matamua, traditional Māori star knowledge and Western science are not enemies but allies. His latest project uses historic star lore to shed light on modern environmental issues – and is also a deeply personal quest that began with a dying grandfather’s wish.

Portrait of Rangi Matamua
Rangi Matamua

Rangi Matamua’s path is literally written in the stars.

Rangi (Ngai Tūhoe) is from Ruatāhuna and Waikaremoana and descends from at least two generations of tohunga kōkōrangi – astronomical experts.

A pivotal point in his life was when his dying grandfather asked him to look after a very precious book that his great-grandfather had started writing in 1898. The 400-page manuscript contained the Tūhoe names and knowledge of over a thousand stars, planets and objects in the sky.

Star knowledge is tapu (sacred) and in Rangi’s grandfather’s time it was seen as the height of traditional Māori academic pursuits. His grandfather, a very quiet and humble man, had something important to say just before he died – and those final words have stayed with Rangi all of his life:

“On his deathbed my grandfather said to me, ‘Look, the book: I don’t want you to let the book go. It is sacred. Hold onto the book. But the knowledge in the book… Knowledge that isn’t shared, isn’t knowledge: it’s dust. So you need to find a way to get that knowledge out to the world’.”

With these words prominent in his thoughts, Rangi decided to follow in the footsteps of his tīpuna.

A celestial career

Rangi is now Associate Professor at the University of Waikato’s School of Māori and Pacific Development, where he leads the Marsden-funded research project Te Mauria Whiritoi.

The project involves collecting Māori star lore to build a comprehensive picture of Māori astronomical knowledge, and specifically to understand the connection between rising star points, the ecological events that happen when those points rise and how these were shown in ceremony.

“The whole point of what we’re doing is for us to make sure that it can be a meaningful and important part of modern and future Māori society; that’s the end goal. That’s why I think that traditional Māori knowledge needs to evolve out and become modern knowledge.

“The holy grail for us is understanding the interface between traditional Māori astronomy and ‘Western’ science. Those things are not enemies; they actually have the ability to complement each other very, very well. So we want to encourage our Māori kids to be scientists like astrophysicists, but also to know the traditions and the knowledge around those.”

A big part of this is finding new ways to share Māori star knowledge, such as through iPad apps like StarWalk. Matariki is a particularly good time to do this, since Rangi makes contact with a lot of people through his public talks about what Matariki is and what it means.

Rangi says this time of year is significant to Māori because when the pre-dawn rising of the Matariki star cluster (Pleiades) happens at the end of the Māori lunar month Pipiri (approximately June), this is a sign that it’s time to bid the old year farewell and welcome the new.

Matariki is a time to mourn ‘te hunga kua whetūrangitia’ – those who have become stars. But it is also a time to start letting go of grief and begin afresh. Some Māori observe the new year at the first new moon after Matariki rises (purported to be 6th June for 2016) but Rangi says that the recent focus on the new moon is actually a very big misunderstanding.

“To Māori, the new moon is Whiro – the god of death, illness and darkness. Who really wants to look for the signs of the upcoming year during the time of death and illness?” he points out. “The date of 6th June is so wrong, especially as Matariki is not even visible yet. The correct time is during the last quarter of the moon cycle, or the Tangaroa nights of the moon, which this year is from 28th June to 1st July. This is also when you will actually be able to see Matariki in the sky, which helps!”

Kereru pair
New Zealand wood pigeon

Matariki was traditionally as big and as important to Māori as Christmas and New Year is today because it had many spiritual and environmental messages for the forthcoming year.

“The way that Matariki looks in the sky – its appearance, its clarity, its brightness – indicated to Māori how bountiful the impending year would be,” Rangi explains. “For example when Matariki rises on a particular morning, that was a sign to the community that certain species of animals, in particular the wood pigeon, were ready to be harvested.”

Environmental indicators don’t just emerge at Matariki, though.

Rangi and his research colleagues have been collecting star lore from many Māori communities – and the result is an astounding database of over 10,000 ‘snippets’ of information.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of ecologically connected indicators that are scattered across the stars,” he says.

“Take Takarua, or Sirius, for example: when that star rises that’s an indication that it’s cold. There are a group of stars around her that, depending on the way they show themselves, will let you know whether there’s going to be snow, or maybe frost, or icy cold winds.”

Searching for star trails

Rangi began his research using the names from his grandfather’s book and then searched for other written records of these names in online and library databases. Because Māori star lore was originally shared through spoken language rather than written, he also goes to places with astronomy-related names, to spend time with locals and hear about their tribal group’s star knowledge.

He is excited to find that there is actually a huge amount of astronomical knowledge and information that still exists in Māori communities:

“When we started the project, we thought ‘oh we might find a few examples’ but oh my goodness we’ve found massive amounts of data! When we go to these places, the people we meet often say they don’t know anything, but then they give us just a little bit of information. Then that’s a trail that leads to and agrees with someone else’s recording, or a snippet in a book or song.

“You know, it’s like a big, massive jigsaw! And when we piece the puzzle together, it becomes this huge database showing what Māori used to practice around the rising of ‘this’ star or ‘that’ planet and what it meant for them in terms of, say, harvesting kūmara or catching whitebait.

“We can see just how prevalent astronomical knowledge was in the day-to-day lives of traditional Māori society. The vast majority of the names and knowledge are pretty similar across all tribes because regardless of where you are – from the Far North to the Deep South – our sky is not that different.”

Rangi’s work isn’t just important for Māori, however. This knowledge already has potential to help scientists better understand our world. He says that when comparing Māori star lore with today’s astronomical and ecological observations, there are signs suggesting that climate change is already happening.

“We know that when a star like Rigel rises, a certain series of plants should be blooming at that stage. Likewise, when Mars is in the sky at a particular time, we know that the spring tides should be arriving and there’s a whole load of animal species that should be migrating then,” he explains.

“Now we’re starting to see that those star indicators will be there, but the ecological ones won’t be. So there is change in our environment. I think those traditional star indicators are good points for a better understanding of where climate change is at the moment.”

We are all made of stars

Image of matariki with stardust
Matariki with star dust

Rangi believes that Māori knowledge and science are often just two versions of the same story that confirm each other, and if Māori and scientists can become more open to each other’s ways of working then “a lot of synergies could happen in this space”.

“Māori have always believed that we come from stars. One of the earliest messages we have is that we are related from stars, we descend from stars. Early scientists thought this was ludicrous,” he says.

“Now there’s a very well-known picture going around that we’re all stardust, and this comes out of people up at NASA who are saying that all the molecules inside of our bodies that make us who we are actually begin their lives as stars.”

Rangi’s 20 years of research culminates with an exhibition at the Museum of Waikato called Te Whaanau Maarama: The Heavenly Bodies, which he co-curated.  The exhibition shines a spotlight on modern Māori astronomy – including scientific components – and aims to promote a better understanding of the history and meaning of Matariki. It opened on 28 May and will run until 13 July 2018.

He is also planning on releasing the first of two books in 2017, which he hopes will encourage Māori ownership of star knowledge and the practices that embed it.

“I get concerned when non-Māori write in this space with no understanding of culture and in particular language,” he says. “I think it’s time now for Māori to stop being written into history and start writing ourselves into history. Otherwise we just sit aside as observers while other people tell our stories.

“The knowledge in my grandfather’s manuscript is sacred to me, and some of it is very personal so I have been thinking long and hard about sharing it. But it’s my obligation for me to tell my story and the story of my ancestors and my people. It’s for me to do justice.

“Because if I don’t share that knowledge, then it’s nothing. It’s worthless. It’s dust.”

Tēnā rawa atu koe, Rangi, for sharing your story.

Watch Rangi explain the nine – not seven – stars in the Matariki cluster

Main image – Jason Hullinger combined with iStock image.
Kererū (wood pigeon) photo by Pete Monk
Matariki stardust image by NASA/JPL-Caltech

0 Responses to “Deciphering Matariki: science lessons from star lore”

  • Tēnā rawa atu koe e Rangi,

    I’m not an indigenous person (Chinese), but i’m indigenous in terms of spiritual worldview, holistic education and group development. China is not an indigenous country, but Chinese culture is indigenous. My conclusions come from my transformational journey working in Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. By getting involved in Māori culture I’ve re-found the significance of my own native culture. I’ve found a lot things in common between the two cultures in terms of the origin of the universe-from Te Kore to Te Ao Mārama, traditional medication-rongogā etc. We have similar terms like Tao (way of life and universe) and Qi (energy stream) that governs everything we do very much like mauri. People (equivalent to tohunga) in old days told happenings in far away places and predicted future by observing stars.
    Lidu Gong, Librarian, TWoA

    • Thank you for sharing this, Lidu! I’m now curious to learn more about these aspects of Chinese culture 🙂
      Ngā mihi mahana,

  • That image of Matariki is upside down. If you don’t believe me, go outside and take a look. From NZ it looks like an upside down frypan.

    Correct images can be seen at

    To save you going outside, an actual photo from Lake Tekapo (Matariki is on the very left)

    • Ngā mihi Tony and kia ora for pointing that out. Another person also flagged this error up earlier today so I am going to change it as soon as I get home later tonight. I had to find an image without copyright issues and this was an interesting stock library image because it had mountains and not just the star cluster, but I didn’t think to check it fit the NZ perspective – whoops!
      Thanks again for pointing this out!

      EDIT 22:50pm: I’ve now had a little play with photoshop and put another image of Matariki (rotated so that it’s the right way round!) behind the same mountains, so as to not change the main image too much but still make sure it’s correct. Thanks again to you, Tony, and also to Toni who emailed me telling me about this mistake.