Story: Economy

Page 9. The Māori economy: a history

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The Polynesians who settled New Zealand carried an economy with them. They introduced kurī (dogs), kiore (the Pacific rat) and crops such as kūmara (sweet potato). Local resources were initially plentiful and easily gathered. Some were overexploited. Killing seals and the large flightless moa was all too easy – they were not so much hunted as ‘quarried’.

As these resources ran out, Māori adopted a more sustainable economy, based on cultivating kūmara and fern root, and a careful harvest of the forests, the seashore and the sea. Tribes were self sufficient in most resources, but there was trade in valuable tough cutting stone such as pounamu (greenstone), obsidian and argillite.

Joining the market

With the arrival of the Europeans, Māori quickly began to trade food, especially pigs and potatoes and other resources – timber, flax – for European wares such as nails and muskets. At first some European settlers survived only because of the supply of Māori food.

Eaten with relish

Māori gladly ate the new foods that explorers introduced. While parareka (potatoes) and poaka (pigs) were soon staple foods, younger people also tried more unusual flavours. A favourite early relish contained an extraordinary mixture of new tastes and old: tāwhara (kiekie berries), peaches, onions, potatoes, kūmara, fuchsia berries, pig brains, lard and tutu juice. This particular sauce won’t be found in any contemporary Kiwi recipe book.


Following loss of land and a declining population from the mid-19th century, the Māori economy became increasing marginalised. Despite living almost entirely rurally, Māori found it difficult to take full advantage of the pastoral farming revolution.


After the Second World War Māori moved to urban centres to find jobs and prospects. Today they are an integral part of the New Zealand economy and workforce, although they tend to be on average younger and less skilled. They are also less well paid and more likely to be unemployed. Māori tend to be more concentrated in farming, forestry, fisheries, tourism and some service providers in education and health.

How to cite this page:

Brian Easton, 'Economy - The Māori economy: a history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Brian Easton, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Sep 2016