Story: Te ohanga onamata a rohe – economic regions

As moa and seals became depleted in New Zealand, Māori sought new foods. Of the plants and animals they brought with them kūmara was one species that survived – it was a favourite food, and land where it grew was dotted with defensive . In southern regions where no cultigens grew the population was sparse, and people lived a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Story by Basil Keane
Main image: Māori kāinga (village)

Story summary

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Polynesian ancestors

The Polynesian ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand in by 1300, bringing tropical plants and animals. The country was cooler than their home islands, and some plants taken to many places in the Pacific, such as bananas and coconuts, could not be grown. Kūmara, taro, uwhi (yams), hue (gourds), aute (paper mulberry) and tī pore (cabbage tree) survived, and so did the kiore (rat) and the kurī (dog). Land where these species thrived became desirable regions to live.

Forest and gardens

80% of the country was covered in forest. Long stretches were cleared by burning, to provide land for gardens, and to encourage regrowth of aruhe (bracken) which had an edible starchy root.

People ate forest birds and berries, and used wood to build waka (canoes) and houses.

Moa and seals – early settlement

Large moa (flightless birds) were found throughout the country, and colonies of seals lived around the coast. At first people lived on both main islands, but when the moa became extinct and seal colonies began to die out, most people settled in the North Island.

Stone sources

Māori used stone tools and preferred to live near a source of hard stone for toki (adzes) and whao (chisels). Obsidian, argillite and pounamu (greenstone) were traded throughout the country.

Mid-20th-century scholars identified three economic regions, which they called Iwitini (many peoples), Waenganui (the middle) and Te Wāhi Pounamu (the greenstone place).


Up to 80% of the population lived in the Iwitini region – the northern North Island, and its east and west coasts down to Whanganui and southern Hawke’s Bay. Plants from Polynesia were grown, especially kūmara. 98% of all New Zealand’s were in this area – built to protect fertile land and crops.

Manukau Harbour had many villages on its shores. People valued the rich supply of seafood, and travelled its waterways. Other large harbours also had many settlements.

The Coromandel Peninsula and nearby islands were sources of stone – Tūhua (Mayor Island) had obsidian, which was traded and has been found as far away as the Chatham Islands.


The rest of the North Island, the tip of the South Island and a strip along its eastern coast to Banks Peninsula has been called ‘Waenganui’, the middle. Around 15% of Māori lived in this region. Kūmara grew in some places, but it was too cold for other crops.

Te Wāhi Pounamu

The rest of the South Island, Te Wāhi Pounamu (the greenstone place), was home to only 5% of the population. Horticulture was impossible and people had a hunter–gatherer life, eating tuna (eels), mangā (barracouta), tī kouka (native cabbage tree), weka birds and tītī (muttonbirds).

The West Coast remained fully forested and few people settled there – it was wet and rugged. But the most prized stone of all, pounamu, was found there.


The ancestors of the Moriori set off from the South Island in the 1500s and reached Rēkohu (the Chatham Islands), 800 kilometres off the coast. People may have taken kūmara with them but it did not grow. However kiore survived.

There were no big trees to build waka, so much smaller waka kōrari were made from flax, reeds, bits of wood and bull kelp. Moriori lived on seafood, seals, birds and berries.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te ohanga onamata a rohe – economic regions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 March 2010