Story: Te mahi kai – food production economics

Page 2. Adapting to New Zealand

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Introduced animals

In Polynesia, pigs were the most important domestic animal. The chicken was also important. But neither became established in New Zealand. The kurī (dog) and kiore (Pacific rat) were a poor second-best for protein.

Protein sources

At first, the lack of pigs and chickens may not have seemed important. Large sea mammals like dolphins and seals provided plenty of protein. Fur seals could weigh 200 kilos, a significant proportion of which was edible meat. While chickens were not successfully introduced, there was a giant bird which Māori named moa – the Polynesian word for chicken. The average moa caught by Māori weighed around 75 kilos, half of which was edible. There were also a number of other large birds.

Demise of the big game

Moa bred extremely slowly. Over about two centuries, overhunting and modification of the environment led to their extinction. Also, overhunting of seals led to the main accessible seal colonies being wiped out, except in the far south.


Māori adapted their fishing gear and methods to suit New Zealand conditions and fish species. In Polynesia, trolling lures designed to attract large fish were made from pearl shell. In New Zealand they were made out of stone, bone and shell. In the South Island, a special trolling lure was used to catch barracouta; in the North Island, a different lure was used for kahawai.


The main cultivated fruit trees of the Pacific were not successfully introduced to New Zealand. The cultigens that did survive – kūmara (sweet potato), taro, hue (gourd), uwhi (yam), tī pore (Pacific cabbage tree) and aute (paper mulberry) – grew with difficulty.

Kūmara growing and storage methods, in particular, had to be adapted to New Zealand. Kūmara was grown on north-facing, elevated sites. Unsuitable soils were adapted by adding sand, gravel and charcoal to improve heat retention and drainage. Māori also developed rua kūmara (kūmara pits) with high humidity levels to store tubers for both eating and planting.

The way to a woman’s heart

A story of a high-born young woman choosing a husband illustrates the value of aruhe (fern root). The woman refused to marry a kūmara gardener, saying that he was only useful in peacetime, as gardens and stored food were often ransacked during war. She would not marry an eeler, as eels were only plentiful during floods, or a fisherman, as he was only useful when the sea was calm. She married a man who could harvest aruhe, so there would always be food.

The importance of horticulture for food production increased over time, but the survival of Polynesian cultigens suggests that horticulture must have begun from first settlement.

Aruhe (fern root)

While horticulture provided some of the carbohydrate requirements of Māori, it was supplemented by aruhe (fern root), the edible root of the bracken fern. Digging up aruhe is back-breaking labour, but the root was widely available, and once preserved could last almost indefinitely. Its status as a staple was underlined by a proverb about aruhe, ‘Te tūtanga tē unuhia’ (the food portion that is always present).

How to cite this page:

Manuka Henare, 'Te mahi kai – food production economics - Adapting to New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Manuka Henare, published 24 Nov 2008