The Maori tribes of New Zealand excelled in the decoration of their timber buildings with elaborate relief carvings and sculptures. This powerfully conceived, freestanding figure may have functioned as a tekoteko, a carved figure placed on the gable peak of an assembly house, food storehouse, or chief’s dwelling; or it may have been a poutokomanawa, the center post that holds up the ridgepole of a large house such as that of a chieftain. The ridgepole is symbolically the backbone of the ancestor who is represented by the house. The figure represents either a god or a recently deceased male ancestor who, in Maori culture, looks after the welfare of his descendants.
As is common with these statues, the face is carved with an intricate curvilinear pattern reproducing the tattoos (moko) that decorate the faces of Maori chieftains. The carvings on the arms are not the same tattoos as on the face; they are specific patterns that are either unique to a particular family (whanau) or have a specific significance for that sculpture. Spirals mark the joints of the figure at the shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees, and hips, reflecting the early date and superior quality of the work—the rough edges indicate that the spirals were cut with stone tools, before the introduction of steel knives in the early nineteenth century.