Story: Te Māori i te ohanga – Māori in the economy

Page 1. The Māori economy

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Māori lived in villages (kāinga) located close to important resource areas, particularly coastal stretches with good fish stocks and shellfish beds, fresh water, north-facing slopes for horticulture and forest for hunting birds. From the 1500s onward (defensive fortifications) sprang up.


The economic activities of Māori were whānau- and hapū-based. The whānau was directed by a kaumātua (elder) while the hapū was directed by a rangatira. Economic activities subject to religious ritual and restrictions required a ritual expert, the tohunga ahurewa (high priest).

Polynesian crops

Māori grew a number of plants that had been brought by the first arrivals, including the kūmara (sweet potato), taro and hue (bottle gourd). Because of different climatic conditions the kūmara could not be grown year-round in New Zealand as it could in the tropics. The hue was eaten as a small fruit, and the skins were dried and used to hold water and food.

Indigenous plants such as the karaka and tī kouka (cabbage tree) were also cultivated. Karaka berries were cooked and eaten, and the roots and stems of the tī were harvested and cooked. In some areas patches of land were deliberately burnt off to encourage the growth of aruhe (fern root).

Moving on


Crops or other food sources could fail and sometimes people had to move. Tribes passed on whakapapa and knew the land they could claim a connection to. The importance of maintaining these links is summed up in the proverb ‘Mate kāinga tahi ora kāinga rua’ – if one home fails a second one will flourish.


Big game

The first Polynesian settlers quickly spread across the country. They based themselves in areas with good access to significant food resources. Initially, access to moa and seals were important. After moa died out and seal numbers plummeted, settlers moved to warm areas and the effort put into fishing and catching smaller birds increased.


Māori fished in a variety of ways. Line fishing, trolling and net fishing were all practised. Snapper caught in the north and barracouta in the south were important foods. Some communities caught huge numbers of eels during eel migrations, and eels were an important food for all tribes.


The most important bird species for food became kererū, kākā, kiwi and weka. They were speared in trees, or snared in various ways.

Kiore and kurī

The Polynesian ancestors of Māori brought kiore (Pacific rats) and kurī (dogs) with them. As well as being used for hunting, kurī were cooked and eaten. Kiore were also hunted for food. They were particularly numerous during beech masts – years when the fruit of beech trees was plentiful.

Food preservation

A number of foods were dried for preservation, including fish. Māori also preserved animals in their own fat. Tītī (muttonbirds) in the South Island were preserved in pōhā (kelp flaps). In the north, kiore and birds were preserved in hue.

Stone resources

All main useful rock types were discovered soon after settlement: northern obsidians; fine-grained basalt at Tahanga; argillite in Nelson–Marlborough, Riverton and Bluff; silcretes in Otago and pounamu on the West Coast. Stone was traded throughout the country.


Trade took the form of gift exchange. The giving of a gift created an obligation to reciprocate with an equal or better gift. Inland tribes often traded foods with coastal tribes, and an inter-island trade between the South and North islands was important.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te Māori i te ohanga – Māori in the economy - The Māori economy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 Mar 2010