Rodney Hide: Modernisation has ruined health of Maori

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The physical perfection of Maori startled Europeans arriving in New Zealand. Photo / Isaac Gilsemans
The physical perfection of Maori startled Europeans arriving in New Zealand. Photo / Isaac Gilsemans

Americans are the fattest people on the planet, right? Wrong. Maori are way fatter.

Forty one per cent of Maori are officially obese. That's a rate 37 per cent higher than US folk.

But it wasn't always so. Maori once were the most physically perfect race on the planet. Their physical perfection is backed by the first sketch of Maori by Abel Tasman's cartographer, Isaac Gilsemans, who shows young and old warriors in a canoe, every one of them in superb physical condition. They're lean and they're muscular. Any of them could be a pin-up at the gym today.

The sketch isn't stylised. Gilsemans was a cartographer: lives depended on his accuracy. His purpose was to show the "appearance of the people".

That was in 1642. Captain Cook in 1769 observed: "They are also exceedingly vigorous and active. Their teeth are extremely regular and as white as ivory ...

they seem to enjoy high health and we saw many who appeared to be of a great age."

Captain Cook's botanist, Joseph Banks, concurred. "The men are of the size of the larger Europeans, stout, clean limbed and active, fleshy but never fat. Among them I have seen many very healthy old men and in general the whole of them are as vigorous a race as can be imagined."

The early Europeans found Maori to be taller than them, healthier than them, fitter than them and maintaining their health and fitness to a good age.

Maori had the best teeth ever recorded. The first director of Otago's Dental School was Henry Percival Pickerill. He reported examining 250 pre-European Maori skulls to find only two had tooth cavities.

They had no toothpaste, no toothbrushes and no dentists. Old-time Maori clearly knew how to look after themselves and their teeth.

But something went horribly wrong. And it went wrong long before KFC and video games turned up. Dr Alfred K Newman wrote in 1881, "On visiting Maori pas we see nearly all the young women very fat."

Importantly, Maori who stayed with the traditional Maori diet retained good health.

With Sir Apirana Ngata's help, the great nutritionist and dentist Dr Weston A Price studied isolated Maori communities in the 1930s. Price published his results in his 1939 bombshell book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.

Price found only 2 per cent of teeth attacked by cavities in these isolated communities. In the most modernised Maori groups, the rate was 31 to 50 per cent. He also found that 40 to 100 per cent of modernised Maori had deformed dental arches and buckled teeth. There were virtually no deformed dental arches in pre-European Maori skulls.

Good teeth are great markers of healthy development. Maori on traditional diets had beautiful teeth. Price attributed the poor health of modernised Maori to the "displacing foods of modern commerce", sugar and sugary food, white flour, syrup and canned goods.

In comparison, the diet of isolated Maori communities was a "liberal use of sea animal life, marine plants, marine birds and their eggs, land birds, seeds of trees and plants, vegetables, particularly fern root".

Price also described isolated Maori doing calisthenics and systematic exercise to song "with the result that these people maintain excellent figures to old age".

According to Price, Maori had "developed a knowledge of Nature's laws and adopted a system of living in harmony with those laws to so high a degree that they were able to build what was reported by early scientists to be the most physically perfect race living on the face of the Earth".

Imagine what New Zealand must have been like. The bush alive with birds. The sea chocka with fish. The coastal waters filled with shellfish. The Maori lived among an abundance of good food, God-like with their beautiful physiques and glorious good health.

It wasn't soldiers and muskets that did the real damage. It was the merchants and their stores.

One in five adult Maori now suffers the deadly and debilitating type 2 diabetes or its precursor, pre-diabetes. That disease is entirely a disease of so-called civilisation.

When it comes to health and to nutrition we have less to learn from health authorities and nutritional experts and everything to learn from the customs and diet of our old people.


Debate on this article is now closed due to a high number of inappropriate postings.

- Herald on Sunday

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