When the ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand, around 1250–1300 AD, they were the last wave of Polynesian explorers who had voyaged across the Pacific Ocean. Their ancestors had also traded between islands, over hundreds of kilometres of open sea. New Zealand was the largest landmass settled by Polynesians, but the different parts of the country where they settled were easily reached by sea.
Polynesians often occupied island chains, island-hopping to access resources. On arrival Māori ancestors probably treated New Zealand in a similar way. Different parts of the country were reached by sea, and it seems that both the North and South islands were quickly settled. Historian James Belich notes that early on New Zealand was approached as ‘a constellation of “resource islands”’. 1
Scientists have found evidence of the extraordinary voyages of Polynesian explorers and traders. The basalt from an adze found in the Tuamotus is believed to have been brought from Hawaii, thousands of kilometres away. It also appears that Polynesians voyaged to South America, taking chickens with them and bringing back kūmara.
Tangaroa, god of the sea, is found throughout Polynesia, and fishing had been an occupation for millennia. Traditional fishing expertise and technology was transferred to New Zealand. Polynesian hooks, lures and sinkers were trialled and adapted over time, along with the lunar and nightly calendars for fishing.
New Zealand was at best marginal for the traditional crops of Polynesia. The main fruit trees of the Pacific, the breadfruit tree, coconut palm, banana tree and plantain, may have been brought to New Zealand but did not survive. The kūmara (sweet potato), taro, hue (bottle gourd), uwhi (yam) and tī pore (Pacific cabbage tree) did survive, but were marginal even in the best agricultural areas. The aute (paper mulberry), used for tapa cloth rather than food, also survived.
Polynesian explorers and traders carried four animals as they colonised the Pacific. Three were domesticated – the pig, chicken and dog – while the rat was not. While all four may have made it to New Zealand, only the kurī (Polynesian dog) and kiore (Pacific rat) survived.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
The loss of seals, moa and other large birds through over-exploitation led to a new paradigm in food production. The protein boom was over, and it became vital to extend and intensify production and develop better methods of preservation. As James Belich notes, ‘An all-year-round living could be wrested from New Zealand nature ... but it took immense effort and organisation, aimed at a wide range of targets.’ 1
After the loss of large birds and sea mammals, kurī (dogs) and kiore (Pacific rats) became more important. Kurī were a delicacy, although they were not present in large numbers.
Kiore were caught by setting traps along their pathways and near their food sources. They were often trapped while eating kiekie fruit (tāwhara), and were particularly numerous during beech mast years (when there are large numbers of flowers and seeds). Kiore were cooked and stored in their own fat in tahā, containers made from hue (bottle gourds).
In the South Island, the tī kōuka (cabbage tree) was particularly important as a source of carbohydrate. Para kāuru (tī kōuka groves) were often deliberately planted. The leaf buds were cooked as a vegetable with fatty foods. The stem and rhizome of young plants were cooked in large, circular pits called umu tī to extract the kāuru (sugar).
Numerous foods were gathered from the forest, including fruits and berries from hīnau, tawa and miro; greens such as pūhā or sowthistle; the hearts of nīkau palms; the roots of perei (potato orchids); and the bracts of kiekie. Nectar was taken from flax, cakes were made from raupō (bulrush) pollen, and a drink was made from tutu berries. Karaka, mamaku (tree ferns) and tī kōuka (cabbage trees) were all used.
After the large birds became extinct, Māori turned to smaller birds. Forest birds like kererū (New Zealand pigeons), kākāriki (parakeets), tūī and kākā (parrots) were taken, as were ground birds such as kiwi, weka and kākāpō. Ducks were also taken, particularly when moulting. So were seabirds, especially tītī (muttonbirds) in the south.
Numerous methods were developed for catching birds, including snaring, using decoys, spearing and catching with nooses. Birds were cooked and stored in their own fat in tahā (gourds) and sometimes in pōhā (containers made from bull kelp).
Various shellfish such as pāua, pipi, cockles, tuatua, kūtai (sea mussels), kākahi (freshwater mussels), tio (oysters), toheroa, pūpū, and whetiko were taken. Karengo seaweed was preserved and gifted to inland tribes. Kōura (crayfish) and kina (sea urchins) were also eaten.
Marine fishing focused on snapper in the north and barracouta in the south, but shark, kahawai, tarakihi and cod were also important. Different fish were important in different areas. Seals were still taken occasionally. Dolphins and pilot whales were sometimes harpooned at sea or driven ashore, and stranded whales were used for food. Fish were dried and preserved.
Māori caught tuna (eels, and some other fish which resemble eels). These included shortfin and longfin eels, ngōiro (conger eels), tuere (hagfish), para (frostfish) and piharau (lamprey). Eels were mainly caught in pā tuna (eel weirs) as they migrated. Piharau were caught in utu piharau (lamprey weirs) when returning upstream. Eels were preserved by smoking and drying.
The four seasons were hōtoke (winter), kōanga (spring), raumati (summer) and ngahuru (autumn). The year was divided into lunar months. The new year began in winter in the month of Pipiri (May–June), signalled by the pre-dawn rising of Matariki (the Pleiades) or Puanga (Rigel).
Each month was also signalled by a particular pre-dawn star. The timing of activities was determined by the nights of the moon, each of which had a particular name.
The following calendar was compiled by Raymond Firth from various sources in 1929.
‘Hōtoke’ literally means cold, as does ‘makariri’, another word for winter. Hōtoke was the first season of the year and included the months of Pipiri, Hōngongoi and Here-turi-kōkā.
Bird snaring and kiore trapping began. Piharau (lamprey) were running, as were warehou and moki fish. Kākahi (freshwater mussels) were collected. Harore (mushrooms) and perei (potato orchids) appeared. New ground was broken up for crops and gardens were turned.
Bird snaring and kiore trapping continued. Fat kākā were taken by hand, and tūī were caught at night. Toitoi, warehou and moki fish and piharau (lamprey) were caught. Kākahi (freshwater mussels) and karengo seaweed were collected.
Bird snaring and kiore trapping continued. Fern was burnt off and new ground was turned for crops. Toitoi, tarakihi, kehe and kumukumu (gurnard) fish were caught.
The appropriate time to plant, hunt, fish and gather was governed not just by the season and the month, but also by the nights of the moon. Each night of the lunar month had a name, based on the phases of the moon. Kūmara was planted on the nights called Ōuenuku, Ari, Rākau-nui, Rākau-ma-tohi, Takirau and Ōrongonui. Ōuenuku and Ōkoro were good nights for eeling, and Ari-roa was good for spearing eels. Ōrongonui was good for īnanga (whitebait). No planting or eeling was done during full-moon days.
The root of the word kōanga is kō, meaning spade – the season is literally a time for digging. It includes the months Mahuru, Whiringa-ā-nuku and Whiringa-ā-rangi.
Ground was dug and prepared for cultivation. Tī kōuka (cabbage tree) tops were cut off. Kōura (crayfish) were caught on the East Coast, and īnanga (whitebait) were taken at Taupō. Toitoi, tarakihi, kehe and kumukumu were caught.
Crops were planted. The roots of the tī kōuka were dug for kāuru (sugar). Kōura were caught on the East Coast, and īnanga were taken at Taupō. Paraki and piharau (lamprey) were caught at Otago. Tarakihi, kehe, and kumukumu were caught.
Tītī (muttonbirds) were taken. Kōura were caught on the East Coast. Freshwater crayfish and īnanga were taken at Taupō. Piharau and paraki were taken in Otago. The kahawai fishing season began on the East Coast.
The summer months of raumati include Hakihea, Kohi-tātea and Hui-tanguru. These were the most difficult months to find food.
Tī kouka was dug, and early forest fruits were collected. Kererū were taken on tawa trees. Late planting and cultivation work was done. It was fishing season on the coast. Kōura (freshwater crayfish), īnanga and kōkopu were taken at Rotorua.
Tī kōuka was dug for kāuru. Forest foods, including tutu berries, raupō pollen, roots and fungi, were collected. Felled trees and scrub were burnt for new gardens, and crops on older gardens were weeded. Kākā and tūī were speared on the kōtukutuku (fuchsia) tree.
Kōura, īnanga and kōkopu were caught at Rotorua, and maomao fish on the East Coast.
Tapu (ritual restriction) was lifted from crops. Crops were weeded. Pā tuna (eel weirs) were built. Kōura, īnanga and kōkopu were caught inland. Maomao were caught, while kahawai fishing ended on the East Coast.
This season’s name is an old word meaning 10, as autumn started during the 10th month (February–March) in the traditional calendar. Ngahuru was also the word for harvest, which occurred at this time. Autumn consists of Poutū-te-rangi, Paenga-whāwhā and Haratua.
Crops were dug and tubers were stored, followed by a harvest festival. Tī kōuka was dug. Tītī were taken in Otago. Kōura (freshwater crayfish), īnanga, kōkopu and kōaro were caught at Taupō, and tuna (eels) were taken in rivers. Hāpuku, kehe, maomao and tāmure (snapper) were caught, and ūpokororo fish were caught on the East Coast.
Cropping was finished. Tuna (eels) were taken during heke tuna (eel migrations). Karaka berries were gathered. Tūī and weka were caught in Southland. Hāpuku, warehou and tāmure were caught, and ūpokororo were caught on the East Coast. The maomao season ended.
Remaining kūmara were dug up. Tūī were taken in Otago. Toitoi, warehou and tāmure were caught, as were tuna (eels) and piharau (lamprey).
The rangatira (chief) was responsible for organising large communal enterprises, including food production. His position was hereditary, but leadership ability was vital. A chief’s position and status could vary depending on his effectiveness as a leader during the business of food production.
The tohunga (expert) had a vital role in producing food. He was knowledgeable about the appropriate karakia (charms) and ceremonial activities. The vitality of food resources was represented by their mauri (life force) and it was the tohunga ahurewa’s responsibility to maintain this. He also understood the important balance between tapu (sacred) and noa (everyday). Planting kūmara, in particular, was very tapu. The tohunga’s expertise also included the right times for various activities.
Food was kept in pātaka (storehouses), sometimes elaborately carved. Pātaka that still exist are considered works of art. Their beauty was a way of displaying wealth and increasing mana (status).
While surplus food was vital to individual whānau (families) and hapū (sub-tribes), the use of food to maintain mana was equally important. Gifts were governed by the principle of utu (reciprocity) – when a gift was given, there was an expectation that a gift of greater value would follow.
Kaihaukai was essentially a feast given by one tribal group to another, with an expectation that the feast would be repaid. Because different iwi (tribes) had access to different resources, there was often an exchange of food. Coastal iwi exchanged goods with inland iwi, including fish, shellfish, karengo (seaweed) and berries from karaka, a coastal tree. Inland tribes in turn had birds and kiore (rats) in tahā (calabashes), and various forest products including hīnau cakes. Tītī (muttonbirds) were exchanged for kūmara from Canterbury, and for taro and hue (gourds) from the North Island.
Certain places were noted for the production of special kinds of food. At Rotorua and other inland lakes of the North Island, īnanga (whitebait) and kōura (freshwater crayfish) were preserved in large quantities. The īnanga were dried, then packed in baskets and stored in long strings. The people of Waikato and the Whanganui River caught large numbers of eels and traded them for food products from other tribes.
The kāinga or village was the focal point of economic activities. These were permanent settlements near significant resources, often with a pā nearby. They were generally winter quarters, particularly for iwi (tribes) who moved seasonally to gather or use different resources. However, some kāinga were inhabited year round – particularly if they were on or near the coast, and close to all major resources the people needed.
Individuals, sometimes supported by family members, typically caught birds or kiore (rats). Use rights for particular trees or kiore habitats were often allocated to an individual or whānau (family). In the south, only men went to harvest kāuru (sugar produced from cabbage tree stems and rhizomes) as local foods would not support large groups.
Annual fishing expeditions for sharks and other fish were often organised on a hapū (sub-tribe) or iwi basis. Nets could be up to a kilometre long, so their weaving required large-scale organisation. In the north, one large fishing expedition involved around 1,000 people and caught 7,000 sharks. The annual harvest of tītī (muttonbirds) involved large numbers of people. If a large community event was planned, like a major feast or building a pā, a large clearing might be made to grow food for the event.
Some pā, particularly in Auckland, appear to have supported thousands of people and were virtual urban centres. This suggests large-scale, efficient organisation of food production resources.
Ballara, Angela. Iwi: the dynamics of Māori tribal organisation from c. 1769 to c. 1945. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1998.
Belich James. Making peoples: a history of the New Zealanders: from Polynesian settlement to the end of the nineteenth century. Auckland: Penguin, 2007.
Dalley, Bronwyn, and Gavin McLean, eds. Frontier of dreams: the story of New Zealand. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett, 2005.
Davidson, Janet. The prehistory of New Zealand. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1987.
Firth, Raymond. Economics of the New Zealand Maori. Wellington: Government Printer, 1972 (originally published 1929).