Mokomokai Mummies
Human Mummy
Biographical Information
Name(s) Mokomokai
Age n/a
Sex Male or Female
Status Maori tribes / Rival warchiefs
Height n/a
Culture Maori
Date(s) ~1850
Site Unknown
Current Location
Location New Zealand
Catalog # Unknown

Mokomokai mummies are native to Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. The heads of deceased Maori are mummified, and decorated by traditional "ta moko" tattooing. After mummification of the Maori heads, they are known as Mokomokai.


After the passing of a Maori, the head would be removed from the individual. To preserve the head to ensure proper mummification, the brain and eyes would be removed. Furthermore, any orifice on the head would be sealed with a flax fibre as well as gum. Following this sealing and removal of the organs, the head would be boiled or steamed in a makeshift oven before being smoked over a fire and dried in the sun for several days.

After a head had been sufficiently dried, it would be treated with shark oil.


Mokomokai: Commercialization and Desacralization is a study written by Christian Palmer and Mervyn L. Tano. The study covers the importance of significance of the Moko style of tattooing within the New Zealand Maori tribe, as well as the integral role Mokomokai play within the culture. Mokomokai served as a way to remember the deceased, and symbolically allowed the family to be reminded of the deceased's good character and leadership.


The removal of the brains and eyes from deceased Maori allowed for the proper preservation of heads as they began their process of mummification.

The other remaining orifices of the head would be sealed by means of flax fibre and gum, which ensured that the mummification process would continue with the highest efficiency. The plugging of said orifices would also create the best possible preserved version of a head.


Mokomokai can currently be found in many museums and private collections spread all across the world. In recent years, there has been a push to bring back Mokomokai back to their native land of New Zealand.

Major-General Horatio Gordon Robley was an officer in the British army, as well as an artist, who fought in the New Zealand land wars during the 1860s. He wrote a book on the subject of the "moko" style of tattooing, the style that can be found on Mokomokai. Robley built up a large collection of around 35-40 different Mokomokai, which he tried to sell back to the New Zealand government, an offer that was declined. With the New Zealand government declining to buy back the Mokomokai, most were sold to the American Museum of Natural History.

The heads of enemy war chiefs who were killed in battle would also be collected and preserved by the Maori people. They were considered trophies of war, and would be displayed to the public and mocked. Despite being mocked by the public, they were valuable negotiation tools between warring tribes, with the trading of specific Mokomokai being essential for peace.

External Links


Charlier, P., Huynh-Charlier, I., Brun, L., Champagnat, J., Laguay, L., & Herve, C. (2014) Maori heads (mokomokai): The usefulness of a complete forensic analysis procedure. Forensic Sci Med Pathol, 10(3), 371-379.

Palmer, C., & Tano, M. L. (n.d.) Mokomokai: Commercialization and desacralization. International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management, Denver, Colorado.

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