A staple food
Shellfish have been an important part of the Māori diet since the first peoples arrived in New Zealand. Harvesting was a seasonal occupation, part of the cycle of food-growing and gathering essential to the community.
The harvest was gathered and prepared for three purposes – immediate need, ceremonial occasions such as hui (meetings) and hākari (feasts), and provisions to store for the winter.
Shellfish in middens
Middens (ancient rubbish sites) give us an insight into the range of shellfish that were available. While tuatua, pipi, pāua, pūpū, mussel, cockles, oysters, scallops and mud snails are familiar species still, archaeologists have found the shells of numerous other species in middens. At Māhia there are shells of limpets, whelks, and karaka or ngāruru (Cookia sulcata).
Other species found include black nerita (Nerita atramentosa), ostrich foot (Struthiolaria papulosa), white slipper shell (Crepidula monoxyla), white rock shell (Dicathais orbita), knobbed whelk (Austrofucus glans), volute (Alchithoe arabica), freshwater mussel (Hyridella menziesi), trough shell (Mactra spp.), triangle shell (Spisula aequilatera), and ringed venus shell (Dosinia anus). It is not known whether all were eaten. Some, such as slipper shell and nerita, may have been attached to pāua or mussel shells.
Archaeologists have located extensive middens of the shells left from gathering expeditions on beaches in Northland. At Mahakipawa in Pelorus Sound in the South Island, a large midden of whelk and mud snails was discovered. It is estimated that many tonnes of shellfish were processed there, and that, because there were no fish or bird bones, this was a seasonal camp specifically for gathering shellfish.
Sometimes the harvest was cooked in the umu (earth oven). The tuwhatu method involved piling the shellfish in a heap, then burning dry fern on top, or enclosing it with a circle of fire. In the kōhue method, shellfish were placed in a hue (gourd) among hot stones. The shells opened and the liquid that came out was used as a medicine.
In 1843 a surveyor described Māori on D’Urville Island gathering mussels, which they cooked in an earth oven. They would then remove the flesh from the shells and string it up to dry in the trees. This method of preservation was also used for other shellfish such as pipi, tuatua and toheroa – the dried flesh was much lighter and easier to carry back to the village, which could be some distance from the shellfish beds.