Story: Kōhatu – Māori use of stone

Page 1. Stone tools

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When the ancestors of the Māori first arrived in New Zealand from East Polynesia, around 1250 to 1300 AD, they found a wide variety of rock types suitable for making tools, ornaments and other items. They were familiar with some materials like basalt and chert (or flint) but not with others, such as pounamu (New Zealand jade, greenstone – nephrite or bowenite). Within perhaps 50–100 years the main sources of suitable stone were known, and several major centres of stone-tool manufacture were established. In the 1300s, Māori were transporting both finished tools and selected raw materials around the country.

Adzes and chisels

The most important tools were adzes (toki) and chisels (whao). Stone adze heads were lashed to a wooden handle and used in working wood, including canoe building. Chisels were primarily used for finer carving.

Initially, many types of adzes were made, in styles similar to those found on eastern Pacific islands. The early adzes had a well-defined butt or grip for lashing to a handle. The majority were made from basalt or other hard rock, notably:

  • adzite, a very tough, fine-grained metamorphic rock, also called baked argillite
  • greywacke, which is hard sandstone.

Later adze styles were more restricted. In the North Island, the main type was a relatively simple form without a defined butt, generally made from greywacke or basalt, but in some cases from nephrite, argillite, and gabbro (a coarse-grained plutonic rock). Similar adzes in the South Island were more commonly made from nephrite.

Adzite and nephrite are found only in the South Island, yet adzes made from these materials have been found throughout New Zealand, indicating extensive trade.

Making an adze

Making a stone adze was a skilled job. Boulders or blocks were broken up using other boulders. Selected pieces were then worked into the desired shape (termed a roughout) by striking flakes off the edges with hammer stones, which were also used to smooth rough surfaces by ‘pecking’ or ‘bruising’. The final step was to polish the adze and sharpen the cutting edge by rubbing it back and forth on a wet grinding stone (hōanga) – a time-consuming task.

Hot rock

Te Whatahoro Jury recalled that in one method to detach pieces of stone from a boulder or outcrop, a fire was kindled nearby. When the stone was red hot, the fire was removed and water thrown on the rock. This caused the surface to break up, so that it was easier to split into manageable pieces – to use for grinding stones or to make adzes.

Flake tools

The tools most commonly used for cutting and scraping were sharp flakes of obsidian (matā – volcanic glass) and chert. Obsidian is found almost exclusively in the northern half of the North Island, with the largest deposits on Mayor Island (Tūhua). Obsidian from this source was traded throughout the country.

Chert was widely exploited in both main islands, and in Otago silcrete (hard quartz sandstone) and porcelanite (baked clay) were used, the former extensively on sites of moa hunters. Other flake tools were made from basalt and greywacke. In Taranaki, large ‘choppers’ are relatively common, and may have been used for slaughtering seals.

Drills and files

Drill points were used to make holes in both wood and stone, and, during the early period, for making one-piece bone fish hooks. They were made from various materials, particularly chert, but also obsidian and some of the same rock types used for adzes.

Making a fish hook involved drilling out the central part of a flat, rectangular piece of bone (usually moa), then shaping it with stone files. The files were usually sandstone, or in some cases schist or petrified wood. Larger slabs of sandstone (hōanga) were used like modern whetstones, for polishing and sharpening adzes.

How to cite this page:

Phil Moore and Bruce McFadgen, 'Kōhatu – Māori use of stone - Stone tools', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/kohatu-maori-use-of-stone/page-1 (accessed 26 June 2019)

Story by Phil Moore and Bruce McFadgen, published 12 Jun 2006