Story: Te ohanga onamata a rohe – economic regions

Page 4. Te Wāhi Pounamu – hunting and gathering

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Te Wāhi Pounamu

Te Wāhi Pounamu is the name used for the South Island, excluding Te Tau Ihu o te Waka (the top of the South Island), and the east coast as far as Banks Peninsula.

Polynesian horticulture was impossible in this area, and a nomadic seasonal hunter-gatherer economy was necessary. This sustained fewer people, and the region had only around 5% of the Māori population before Europeans arrived.

Moa and seals

Significant moa hunting and butchering sites have been found from North Canterbury to Southland. Sealing was particularly important in Otago and Southland.


Once moa became extinct and seal colonies were depleted, new foods were found in Murihiku (the far south). The most important sources were tuna (eels), mangā (barracouta), tī kōuka (native cabbage tree, whose roots and trunk were baked to make a kind of sugar), inland weka and coastal tītī (muttonbirds). These were all collected seasonally.


On the east coast, the bush was cleared almost entirely. But most forest on the wet rugged West Coast remained intact. Tī kōuka leaves were often used for clothing. Hue (bottle gourd), used for containers as well as for eating, could not be grown in this area, so rimurapa (bull kelp) was used to make pōhā, stout seaweed containers in which birds and eels were preserved in their own fat.

West Coast

The West Coast was a particularly difficult place to survive. The Māori population may have numbered only in the low hundreds. Freshwater fishing for tuna (eels), grayling and whitebait, and fowling for weka, kākāpō, kererū, kākā and tūī, were the main sources of food. Birds and eels were preserved in pōhā. Fish and whitebait were smoked and dried. The rugged coast made fishing difficult. Vegetable foods included podocarp berries and tree-fern pith.

Stone resources

A large number of stone resources were found throughout this part of the South Island, including basalt, silcrete, porcellanite, Pahutane flint, greywacke and argillite. Most revered of all was pounamu – nephrite and bowenite (greenstone). Pounamu weapons, in particular mere pounamu (greenstone hand clubs), and toki poutangata (greenstone adzes), became symbols of chiefly authority. Pounamu trails were created to take stone from the West Coast over to the east coast of the island. From there pounamu was traded with other tribes, from the deep south to the far north of the country.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te ohanga onamata a rohe – economic regions - Te Wāhi Pounamu – hunting and gathering', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 October 2023)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 Mar 2010