In Professor Rangi Mātāmua’s office at Waikato University there are a pair of very special books. Both are around 120-years-old.
“Very tapu for me,” says Prof Mātāmua, as he leafs through one of the volumes and points at the lines of cursive script in Te Reo Māori.
“These are all stars, just their own korero of all the stars,” he says. “They give a thousand star names, a hundred and three constellations. Every star has a narrative.”
The two authors of this book were Dr Mātāmua’s tīpuna (ancestors). Both men were Ngāi Tūhoe tohunga with expert knowledge of Māori astronomy.
The book was eventually handed down to Dr Mātāmua’s grandfather, who kept it locked in a cupboard for 50 years.
“He was scared of it,” explains Dr Mātāmua. “It was tapu to him.”
Dr Mātāmua only became aware of the book after he began studying at university in the 1990s and asked his grandfather if he knew anything about Matariki .
“He went and got that book and he gave it to me.”
Dr Mātāmua says his grandfather’s last words to him were “knowledge that isn’t shared isn’t knowledge.”
In the years since, Dr Mātāmua has used the information contained in his ancestors’ texts. together with his own research. to write a popular book, Matariki: The Star of the Year.
He has become a widely acknowledged expert on Māori astronomy and gives talks all around the country about Matariki.
Dr Mātāmua has also come to think deeply about Mātauranga Māori, which can be translated as ‘traditional Māori knowledge’ or ‘Māori science’.
“Science is part of Māori culture,” he explains, referring back to the ancient history of Polynesian voyages in the Pacific.
“You don’t travel and traverse, and then criss-cross that expanse of ocean, without knowing science.”
“Without knowing wave patterns, the movement of the celestial bodies, migration patterns. They knew all of this stuff in detail.”
And it’s not just ancient knowledge. Dr Mātāmua says his own appreciation of general science increased hugely once he was able to view it through a Māori perspective.
The periodic table of elements as a genealogy
Dr Mātāmua gives the example of the periodic table of elements.
“[It] really didn’t mean anything to me, until I thought about it as I got older as genealogy, as whakapapa.”
He says he came to see the Periodic Table as similar to a genealogical table with the older ancestors at the top, and their descendants lower down, but all maintaining their links to one another.
“All these elements are formed inside a star. They have a common origin, that’s genealogy, that’s so Māori.”
In the future, Dr Rangi Mātāmua hopes to set up a school of Māori Astronomy based on instructions contained in his ancestors’ books.
His dream is to bring Māori all over the country together to learn traditional Māori knowledge of the stars.
This programme was produced in collaboration with Dr Melanie Cheung, a Māori neuroscientist and science writer.
The music featured in this story is courtesy of Loop NZ.
‘This Life’ by Fly My Pretties, was written by Tiki Taane and taken from ‘String Theory.’
Matariki is celebrated around New Zealand each winter - search online to find out what's happening in your region.
Listen to the full podcast to hear Dr Rangi Mātāmua’s thoughts on the perceived conflict between Mātauranga and so-called “western” science.