Key Points:

A study of Maori cannibalism by historian Paul Moon has prompted a racism complaint to the Human Rights Commission.

Sent anonymously to Dr Moon, the complaint said This Horrid Practice "describes the whole of Maori society as violent and dangerous. This is a clearly racist view claiming a whole ethnic group has these traits".

The commission has taken no action on it yet but a spokesperson said yesterday any mediation would occur in confidence and the complainant's name would not be released.

The commission said books and publications were covered by the Human Rights Act, however there was a high threshold that had to be met to prevent unwarranted incursion into the right to freedom of expression.

Released in August, the book posits that consuming vanquished enemies' mana had little to do with the underlying reason for Maori cannibalism. Instead cannibalism, in pre-colonial times, was simply about "rage and humiliation".

Dr Moon said he was disappointed that a complaint had been made.

"I spent several years researching this book, using an enormous body of documentation, and I am not about to denounce it just because it upsets a few people.

"What I am saying is, I approach things honestly and apply standard methods of research to it. If anyone disagrees that's fine. But there are ways of disagreeing, making a complaint about a person isn't the way.

"I think it's just very sad that it's come to this stage that when you write about certain topics in New Zealand history you get complaints and accusations of racism levelled at you."

The book has received mixed reviews within Maoridom. Canterbury University's Rawiri Taonui is a severe critic. He called the book an example of "poor scholarship" which "demonises" pre-European Maori society as obsessively violent.

"I think Paul's not a very good academic. I think that it's Eurocentric, it's poor scholarship in a cross-cultural context. He's looked at no Maori language evidence, nothing from the Maori Land Court. He sets that all aside and makes a giant-sized conclusion about pre-European Maori society that's based on the view of a few Europeans."

Dr Taonui said he did not think the book was racist but said the complaint was timely as it exposed inadequate work in Maori scholarship.

However, Auckland University of Technology's Te Ara Poutama dean Pare Keiha - Dr Moon's boss -said the book was "inspired" in some areas.

The book also never claimed that Maori had a monopoly on violence and cannibalism was part of every culture at some point, he said.

"So, yes, if some wish to call him a racist we will defend him, we'll be right alongside him."