Matariki is the earliest, best-recorded history of star group in humanity - Māori astronomer

Friday will be Aotearoa's first ever Matariki public holiday to mark the start of the Māori New Year, but the star cluster is known across the globe and has an ancient recorded history.

It is the most significant celebration in the traditional Māori calendar, occurring when the Matariki star cluster - otherwise known as Pleiades - rises in mid-winter.

Indigenous studies and Māori cultural astronomy academic Professor Rangi Mātāmua (Ngāi Tūhoe) told First Up Matariki is the earliest and best recorded history of a group of stars in humanity.

"There's a cave painting that's 17,000 years old in France that marks the Pleiades and right across the globe cultures used its rising and setting to mark change of season or harvest or planting or celebration."

The Pacific and Polynesia used Matariki as a marker of change of season, he said.

"When our ancestors arrived in Aotearoa they noticed that this far south, it disappears just as summer's coming on in the west with the sun and it reappears just before the sun in the east around the shortest day of the year.

"So they thought well, we can use that as a marker of New Year and that's how it's applied here."

The appearance of Pleiades is celebrated and acknowledged across the globe including in South and North America, Asia and Africa.

"But Matariki in the way that we apply it is very very Pacific, Polynesian and it is unique, the actual ... mid-winter morning appearance is very very unique to us here in Aotearoa."

Traditionally Matariki was closely associated with the environment and "the promise of a New Year and a new bounty", Matamua said.

Māori would gather and cook food in an earth oven before conducting what was known as a hautapu ceremony, he said.

"As Matariki rose they would conduct karakia and offer up the food to the cluster."

Apart from the ceremony the rest of the period of time was spent feasting and celebrating with music and entertainment, he said.

Matariki had three major elements which fed into the celebration, he said.

"One is to remember those that we've lost since the last rising of Matariki, so that's remembrance; two is celebrating who we are and our identity with food and coming together as family and sharing; and the last thing it's about planning for the future and looking forward to a new and bright future."

The people of the Pacific had a very detailed and complex understanding of the night sky, which also helped them to navigate, Matamua said.

Matariki is the name that is applied to the star cluster as far east as Easter Island, up into the Marshall Islands through to New Caledonia.

"Their knowledge of the night sky, their ability to not only read the stars and determine when they rise and when they set and where but also they implemented here a very detailed lunar stellar calendar system.

"So they would look at the lunar calendar and understand the position of Sun and the reappearance of star and the actual lunar phase to determine their time keeping system."