Experts in Australia, New Zealand & South Pacific

The origins of the haka

Posted 19 December 2014
Ka Mate – the most famous of all hakas – is probably the most powerful and captivating pre-match ritual in sport.

It has been used by the All Blacks rugby team since 1905 to intimidate their opponents on the field and lay down the challenge. However, its roots are planted more deeply in history than the 20th century. It’s a proud tradition of the Maori people of New Zealand, but what does it mean and when did it begin?

Ancient dance

Before the first European explorers, missionaries and settlers arrived in New Zealand, the Maoris were widely using the haka. Legend has it that the dance originated with the sun god Ra, and more specifically his son, Tanerore. The ‘wiriwiri’, the familiar hand-shaking movement in the dance, is thought to refer to the shimmering light produced by Tanerore’s performance for his mother, Hineraumati.

The first observation of a haka was in the 18th century. It was traditionally a war cry or challenge from one Maori tribe to another. The most frequent early usage happened on the battlefield to rally troops, although it is not exclusively a battle cry.

More recently, a haka has been performed to welcome guests, to acknowledge achievements and even to celebrate life at funerals. 

Ka Mate

The Ka Mate – the most widely known haka in New Zealand performed by the All Blacks – can be dated back to approximately 1820. It was composed by Maori warrior chief Te Rauparaha of the Ngati Toa Rangatira tribe, and tells the story of his pursuit and escape from an opposing clan, his fear of capture and ultimate relief to have survived.

He is believed to have been hidden in a food storage pit owned by his relative Te Wharerangi. While inside, he muttered the words “Ka Mate, Ka Mate” (“I die, I die”) but after emerging alive and being told the danger was gone he said “Ka Ora, Ka Ora” (“I live, I live”). These words form the basis of the Ka Mate haka with Te Wharerangi likely to be the ‘the hairy man’ mentioned in the chant.

Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!
I die! I die! I live! I live!

Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!
I die! I die! I live! I live!

Tenei te tangata puhuru huru
This is the hairy man

Nana nei i tiki mai
Who fetched the Sun

Whakawhiti te ra
And caused it to shine again

A upa ... ne! ka upa ... ne!
One upward step! Another upward step!

A upane kaupane whiti te ra!
An upward step, another.. the Sun shines!!


Modern-day usage

The haka is most commonly associated with the New Zealand rugby union team, and indeed Ka Mate is the version that they have made famous, but most of the other big South Pacific teams use their own variations of the dance. Fiji have traditionally performed the Cibi war dance, Tonga begin matches with Sipi Tau, and Manu Siva Tau is the Samoan version.

Outside of sport, the New Zealand Defence Force performs a version at funerals as a show of solidarity. All three branches of the Armed Forces have their version, while many schools throughout the country and even worldwide have kapa haka (line dance) groups.

Seeing the haka performed is certainly something to add to your bucket list, and just another reason to visit New Zealand and the beautiful South Pacific.