In tradition, the link between Māori and the soil stretches back to the time of creation. One of the primal parents, Papatūānuku, was the earth, and the first human was formed from soil taken from Papatūānuku at Kurawaka. In one tradition, Tāne made the first woman, Hineahuone (earth-formed woman), from soil before breathing life into her. In another, it is a man, Tiki-āhua, who is formed from soil by Tāne.
In a number of traditions, Māori explorers from voyaging canoes were interested in the agricultural properties of the soil in different areas.
When the great navigator Kupe returned to Hawaiki, he is said to have commented on New Zealand’s fertile soil, saying: ‘There is a distant land, cloud capped, with plenty of moisture, and a sweet-scented soil [one-kakara],’ and ‘The soil of Aotea-roa is good, it is one-paraumu [rich black soil].’ 1
Soil at Pātea
Turi, captain of the Aotea canoe, has a saying associated with him: ‘Te oneone i hongia e Turi’ (the soil which Turi smelled). He went to Taranaki, as Kupe told him the land was one-kakara (sweet-scented soil), suitable for growing kūmara. Simply smelling the soil at Pātea convinced him of its fertility, and he settled there.
Defending the soil
Whātonga, one of the captains of the Kurahaupō canoe, temporarily settled at Nukutaurua on the Māhia Peninsula, and sent his two sons, Tara and Tautoki, to find a better place for settlement. They noted that the island Motu Kairangi (now Miramar peninsula in Wellington city) and Porirua had one-matua (loam), but were too hard for a small group to defend. Wairarapa had different soils, including one-paraumu (dark, fertile soil), one-matua (loam) and one-pakirikiri (gravelly soil), but was also difficult to defend without a large group. Matiu (Somes Island) and Mākaro (Ward Island) were both defendable; they settled on Matiu as it had good soil.
In one tradition the Tākitimu canoe landed at Whangaparāoa, in the eastern Bay of Plenty. Its captain, Tamatea, asked Hoturoa and Ngātoroirangi of the Tainui canoe what the land was like. Ngātoroirangi, the tohunga (priest), replied:
It is good. There is one-tai (sandy soil), one-matua (loam), tuatara (stiff, brown, fertile soil), one-paraumu (dark, fertile, friable soil), one-rere (good draining soil), one-haruru (sand and loam), one-puia (volcanic soil), one-kirikiri (gravelly soil), one-powhatu (stony soil), and one-takataka (friable soil). 2
The return home
In 1950 Rora Fernandos visited the Anzio war cemetery in Italy and collected some soil from the grave of Flight Sergeant Tionga Waaka of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Waaka had been shot down over Italy during the Second World War, and was said to be the only Māori buried in the cemetery. After a three-year search to locate the young man’s family, Mrs Fernandos returned the soil to them at Rotorua.
Soil as a mauri
Sacred earth, both sand and soil, was often used as a mauri (talisman). Ruawharo, a tohunga of the Tākitimu canoe, stopped at Māhia and deposited a parcel of sand from Hawaiki as a mauri for whales. Soil from the ancient Polynesian altar of Rangiātea was brought to New Zealand on the Mataatua canoe and placed at a garden known as Matirerau in Whakatāne.
The Tainui canoe also brought sacred soil from Rangiātea. It was brought ashore by Hoturoa and used to construct an altar at Kāwhia. Tainui ancestor Tūrongo took some of the soil to Rangitoto in the Waikato where he set up an altar. When Ngāti Raukawa migrated to Ōtaki they buried soil as a mauri under the altar of their new church, which was also called Rangiātea.
Bond with the soil
The link to the land was strong. The terms ahu whenua (soil cultivator) and ihu oneone (soiled face) both had the metaphorical meaning of hard worker. When a child was born its placenta (whenua) was buried in the earth (also called whenua). Death completed the cycle.
When the demigod Māui failed to convince Hine-nui-te-pō, goddess of the underworld, to let humans die like the moon (die and return) she told him, ‘Me matemate-a-one’ (let man die and become like soil).
When someone captured in battle was dying, or about to be executed on another tribe’s land, they might request, ‘Tukua mai he kapunga one ki au, hei tangi’ (send me some soil from home that I might grieve over it).