Story: Māori rock art – ngā toi ana

Page 1. Who were the rock artists?

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A unique artistic tradition

Ancient paintings and other markings on the walls of shelters and rock outcrops are found throughout the world. Aotearoa (New Zealand) has a rich heritage of Māori rock art, including designs that are unique to this country.

Pre-19th-century Māori rock art is widespread throughout the North and South islands, although about 90% of recorded sites are in the South Island. More than 95% of rock-art sites are on private land, and many more sites wait to be discovered.

Interpreting designs

The artworks often depict everyday subjects such as people, birds, dogs and waka (canoes). Some less-recognisable figures may be taniwha or other spiritual entities. Geometric designs such as spirals, concentric circles and chevron (zig-zag) arrangements also feature widely. More abstract designs are difficult to interpret as their original meanings have been lost.

First South Island iwi

It is not known exactly when the ancestors of Māori first arrived in Aotearoa, although it is generally thought to be within the last millennium. It is therefore difficult to say exactly when rock art was first produced in this country. The South Island may have been settled initially by Te Rapuwai, Hāwea and Waitaha iwi (tribes), with Ngāti Māmoe arriving in the 16th century and Ngāi Tahu around 1700. According to learned Māori in the 19th century, people from most or all of these iwi were among the artists who produced the rock art.

Dating rock art

No exact dating of New Zealand rock art has yet been carried out. Current techniques for dating pre-historical objects, such as radiocarbon dating, do not yet provide the level of precision required for meaningful research. Dates can sometimes be estimated by examining the images themselves. Paintings of extinct birds like moa and Haast's eagle (Aquila moorei) appear to be drawn from live observations. If so, those images are at least 500 years old, since that is approximately when those species became extinct.

Dating by context

Moa bones and tools have been found in the floors of many shelters containing Māori rock art. These indicate that some of the birds were consumed by the occupants. Much South Island rock art is thought to date from moa-hunting times.

There are many examples of Māori rock art with obviously later work overlaid on top. This may be due to successive migrations of people. Figures showing subjects introduced by Europeans, such as sailing ships, horses and writing in te reo Māori, are recorded in rock shelters in South Canterbury and North Otago. The combined evidence to date suggests that Māori rock art was practised over an extended period, from times when moa were observed through to the 19th century.

Shelters as art galleries

Rock art has generally been found in natural shelters such as caves and under overhanging ledges. Māori would temporarily occupy these shelters while travelling and on food-gathering expeditions. Shelters would also be used on a semi-permanent basis during seasonal food-gathering rounds, when local resources from forest, wetland and open country were harvested.

How marks were made

The large, fairly smooth and light-coloured surfaces of rock shelters or shallow caves, especially in limestone areas, provided early Māori artists with open ‘canvases’. Occasionally marks have been found in sites many metres above the ground.

Traditional Māori rock art was mostly painted and (especially in the North Island) carved, cut, scraped and occasionally chipped out of the surface of the rock. Creating art on these rock walls gave a freedom of expression that was not restricted by structural form or function. Some murals extend up to 20 metres under the overhangs of limestone outcrops.

How to cite this page:

Brian Allingham, 'Māori rock art – ngā toi ana - Who were the rock artists?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 February 2024)

Story by Brian Allingham, published 22 Oct 2014