Story: Papatūānuku – the land

In the Māori world view, land gives birth to all things, including humankind, and provides the physical and spiritual basis for life. Papatūānuku, the land, is a powerful mother earth figure who gives many blessings to her children.

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal
Main image: Papatūānuku in the landscape

Story summary

All images & media in this story

Papatūānuku – mother earth

In Māori tradition, Papatūānuku is the land. She is a mother earth figure who gives birth to all things, including people. Trees, birds and people are born from the land, which then nourishes them. Some traditions say that the land first emerged from under water.

Creation story

In the Māori creation story, Papatūānuku had many children with Ranginui, the sky father. Their children pushed them apart to let in the light. The children had more children, including birds, fish, winds and water. They became the ancestors of everything in the world today.

Stories of the land

In some tribal stories, humans were born or made directly from the earth. There are many stories about people and the land. In one story, the lakes of the Southern Alps were dug out by Rākaihautū, an ancestor of the Waitaha tribe. Many places are named after people’s actions, or parts of their body.

Whenua – the placenta

Whenua, the word for land, also means placenta, the organ that nourishes a baby in the womb. Islands are seen as placentas from Papatūānuku’s womb. Traditionally, when a baby is born, the placenta and umbilical cord are buried in a special place. People who have authority over an area of land are called tangata whenua (people of the land).

Women and land

Women are associated with the land, because the land gives birth to people, and so do women. In tribal history, women have had influence over land and men.


Whakapapa is knowledge about the world. It includes stories about ancestors, and explains the origins of fish, birds, trees, rocks, people and all other things.

Tūrangawaewae – a place to stand

Tūrangawaewae means a place to stand, where a person feels strong and at home. A person’s tūrangawaewae may be their marae, a mountain or river.

Loss of land

Much tribal land was lost in the 19th century, against the will of the tribes. Because of this, many people felt they had lost their sense of foundation and stability.

How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Papatūānuku – the land', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 24 September 2007