Story: Māori rock art – ngā toi ana

On the walls of caves and other natural shelters around New Zealand are many remarkable works of art. They are by generations of Māori, from the first Polynesian settlers who arrived over 700 years ago, to their descendants who witnessed European arrival.

Story by Brian Allingham
Main image: Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre in Timaru

Story summary

All images & media in this story


Aotearoa (New Zealand) has a rich heritage of Māori rock art, including designs that are unique to this country. The rock-art styles introduced to Aotearoa by the first Polynesians were gradually modified into regional variations.

The art was mostly painted, or sometimes drawn. Other works were carved, cut, scraped or chipped from rock.

About 90% of currently recorded rock art is in the South Island, but there are probably undiscovered sites in both the North and South islands.


Māori rock art often shows everyday subjects such as people, birds, dogs and waka (canoes). Some less-recognisable figures may be taniwha or other spiritual beings. Geometric designs are common, too.

The subjects and designs of Māori rock art are closely related to those used in tā moko (tattooing), whakairo (carvings) and kōwhaiwhai (rafter patterns).


Iron oxide deposits were plentiful and were mixed with other substances to form kōkōwai (a red paint). To make black paint, soot was mixed with oil and other ingredients. Yellow, white and blue pigments could be made from clay deposits and other minerals. Blue rock art has been reported, but not recorded in the field.

European response

For a long time Māori rock art was not widely known compared with other Māori art forms such as carving and weaving. Little effort was made to record or preserve the works – some were even vandalised.

However, in 1945 the artist Theo Schoon began recording some South Island drawings. Then, from the mid-1960s, archaeologists conducted rigorous scientific studies of Māori rock art, and more sites were placed under permanent state protection.

In the 21st century Māori rock art is regarded as a priceless relic of New Zealand’s prehistory.

How to cite this page:

Brian Allingham, 'Māori rock art – ngā toi ana', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

Story by Brian Allingham, published 22 October 2014