Surviving in a new land
When the Polynesian ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand after a long time at sea, they would have been astonished by the abundance of food. Moa and fur seals were easy to catch. But within 100–200 years, moa and other large birds were extinct, and seals had disappeared from much of the coastline. Archaeological excavations of middens show that bird and seal bones were replaced by fish bones and shells.
Eat or be eaten
The first Polynesian settlers introduced kiore (rats) and kurī (dogs). Kurī were eaten and usually stayed close to human settlements. Kiore, however, quickly spread throughout the country and had a devastating effect on lizard, insect and bird populations.
Māori and conservation
The evidence of Māori attitudes to what we now call conservation is indirect, and varied within different tribal groups. As with all peoples, immediate survival would have taken precedence over longer-term issues of sustainability. As the population increased, there would have been times when food was scarce, and whatever was edible would have been taken. But by the time of European contact, a number of conservation traditions were evident. There was a widely recognised spiritual relationship between the gods, people, the land and its creatures.
Settlements were usually near the sea, and Māori relied on fishing and shellfish gathering for food. The sea belonged to the god Tangaroa, who needed to be appeased because the fish were his children. Shortages of seafood led to the imposition of rāhui (restrictions or bans) on the gathering of certain species. It is not known how effective rāhui and other methods of resource management were.
There was an awareness of the effects of pollution on fishing grounds, with bans on gutting fish, or discarding food, bait or rubbish at sea. Human waste was also not to be disposed of there – this was in contrast to Pākehā settlers, who tended to regard the sea as a dumping ground.
Despite concern to preserve marine resources, archaeological evidence shows that there were progressively fewer crayfish, pāua and other shellfish at all localities that have been investigated.
Food from the land
Although forests were widespread, they could not sustain humans year round, especially once moa had been hunted to extinction. So forests were burnt down, especially on the drier, eastern side of the South Island. The bracken fern that grew in regenerating areas was a staple of the Māori diet.
Missionary Richard Taylor described a tribe’s rāhui in 1855: ‘the woods in which they hunted the rat were tapu, until the sport was over, and so were the rivers; no canoe could pass until the rahue [rāhui] (usually a pole with an old garment tied to it) was taken down.’ 1
Close to settlements, slow-growing, fruit-bearing trees such as kahikatea, mataī and hīnau were often kept to ensure a supply of birds, especially kererū (New Zealand pigeons). Karaka trees were planted and harvested for berries, and had special significance for many tribes as the place where whenua (placentas) were buried.
Rāhui – restrictions
Rāhui allowed a food source to recover, or guided harvesting – for example, they set times when godwits or eels could be caught. But rāhui were also used to define tribal boundaries or prevent unauthorised harvesting, so were not solely a sustainability practice.