THE JOURNALS of Europeans who settled New Zealand in the 1800s record that the intricate facial tattoos of the native Maoris served not only as decoration but as the individual's legal identity as well. In effect, the Maoris WERE their tattoos. For instance, whenever Te Pehi Kupe, a tribal chief, was required to sign his name to a European document, he painstakingly drew his entire facial design.
These facial tattoos -- so unique and culturally important they also served as the person's name -- were called "moko." The practice of using them as written signatures was a result of the Maoris' earliest encounters with British colonizers who ultimately took control of the country. The Europeans later recorded: "When the natives agreed to give the Marsden Mission the land it required and a deed was drawn, the missionaries were at a loss as to how get the document signed, as the Maoris could not write. Hongi suggested that the tattoo markings on the face of Kuna, the chief conveying the land, should be drawn on the deed ... the suggestion was adopted and this became the common way of signing Maori deeds in the early days."
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