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  • Iwi Māori of Aotearoa did not have a written language until the 19th century, and knowledge was encoded and passed down through waiata (songs), pātere (chants), oriori (lullabies), toi (art), raranga (weaving), whakairo (wood carving) and other visual and oral forms. Within the carvings and other visual works, the intricate patterns, designs and symbols retold creation stories, detailed events in history and held the whakapapa of the iwi.

    Rukuhia te ata o te whakairo
    Rukuhia te ata o te wānanga
    Rukuhia te ata o te wharekura
    Whano, whano! Haramai te toki!
    Haumi ē! Hui ē! Tāiki e!

    Delve deep into the image of carving
    Delve deep into the essence of knowledge
    Delve deep into the image of schooling
    Proceed! Advance! Welcome the adze!
    Unite! Assemble the (vessel’s) ribs and hull!

    Rights: © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Pounamu adze

    A pounamu adze. Traditionally, carving tools were made from pounamu or stone. This adze was discovered in the early 19th century.

    Whakairo is one of the means of expressing history and identity and deeper connections with ancestors and deities. They are there to inspire.

    Wiremu Puke, Tohunga Whakairo

    Inspiration and symbolism

    The earliest examples of Māori carving prior to 1500 show similarities to Eastern Polynesian carvings of the same period. As iwi Māori settled in Aotearoa and adapted to their new whenua, they developed their own style of carving. By the 1800s, detailed art forms had emerged that reflected the local fauna, flora and climate of Aotearoa. The symbolism that these art forms depicted varied slightly from rohe to rohe depending on the taiao. The meaning, however, held many similarities.

    Two classical regional styles were emerging, with many local variations were emerging. The first, tuare or serpentine design, was associated with iwi from Hokianga, Hauraki, Tairāwhiti, Taranaki and Ngāti Whātua. This style depicts cone-like heads and long, sinuous, often s-shaped bodies. The body was usually uncarved, covered in unaunahi (fish scales) most common in the north. Variations were called ritorito (unaunahi clustered together like plants) and pūngāwerewere (unaunahi in a spiral shape).

    The second major regional style was the eastern square style from Bay of Plenty, Thames, East Coast, the southern end of the North Island and Te Waipounamu. This style was so named for its broad, squat body type and large head, which dominated the entire form.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Designs and symbols from the taiao

    Matua Wiremu Puke (Ngāti Wairere, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāpuhi), Carver and Historian talks about some of the environmental motifs found in carving.

    Select here to view video transcript and copyright information.

    Selecting rākau

    Rākau used for carving are often considered to be the embodiment of an ancestor or deity within the domain of Tāne Māhuta, the god of the forest. Karakia were offered in thanks and acknowledgement for the taonga being received. A tohunga whakairo (expert carver) was taught the whakapapa of trees or classification of trees and the best use of the rākau. The native forests of Aotearoa contain close to 220 different tree species so being able to identity what type of tree suited a specific use was important. The utmost care was also taken to not lose or misplace the wood chips used in the creation of whakairo. These were retained and returned to the whenua in the ngahere.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    The whakapapa of trees

    Matua Wiremu Puke (Ngāti Wairere, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāpuhi), Carver and Historian, shares mātauranga whakairo (carving knowledge) with tauira.

    Select here to view video transcript and copyright information.

    Carving tools

    Traditionally, adzes and chisels, essential in a carver's toolkit were made from stone and pounamu. Another essential item in the toolkit was a mallet with a head made from whale bone or wood.

    Pounamu was a prized stone found in Te Waipounamu, but traded successfully throughout Aotearoa in the 1700s. Many regional pūrākau exist that tell the origins of pounamu. A commonality that is shared across many of these pūrākau is the association between pounamu and tūhua (obsidian).

    Pounamu is formed when extreme heat and moisture are trapped between obsidian and sedimentary rock such as sandstone. These connections between various stones are reinforced with the whakapapa of stone – see māramatanga Māori.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Whakapapa of stone

    Matua Wiremu Puke (Ngāti Wairere, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāpuhi), Carver and Historian explains the connections between the whakapapa of stone and whakairo.

    Select here to view video transcript and copyright information.

    Becoming a tohunga whakairo (master carver)

    A Tairāwhiti pūrākau about Ruatepupuke establishes whakairo as a taonga tuku iho – a divine gift handed down from the atua to tūpuna. The adorning of these whakairo is also said to have been gifted from the celestial realm. As such, this mahi toi (art form) is tapu and strict adherence to ritual practices was paramount. Tauira (apprentices) were selected and they studied and trained in this mahi toi for years as novices under tohunga of this art form.

    This taonga tuku iho has survived colonisation, although barely in some rohe and is still very much a renowned taonga in Aotearoa today.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Becoming a Tohunga Whakairo

    Matua Wiremu Puke (Ngāti Wairere, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāpuhi), Carver and Historian explains his journey to become an expert carver.

    Select here to view video transcript and copyright information.

    Ehara i a te rākau, kei ā te tohunga tārai i te rākau te whakaaro.
    It is a carver, not the wood that has the understanding.
    If you forget your tūpuna, you too are lost.

    Mahi whakairo is a mahi rangatira with specific sets of skills and techniques that are learned and practised, transmitting the whakaaro, kōrero and hītori of the carver and the whānau, hapū and iwi. It is important that our artists are valued and supported.

    Te whakapiringa o te tangata, te whakairinga o te kupu.

    The gathering of people, the hanging place of history.

    Related content

    Explore additional Māori insights – māramatanga Māori – related to whakairo.

    See the restoration of a pare (lintel) found in Maketū and housed in the Auckland Museum since 1901.

    Useful links

    Find out more about the origins of pounamu on the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand website.

    Use this School Journal resource from Literacy Online to investigate other ways to view the art of whakairo.

    Whakairo designs from the Whakaraupō Carving Centre Trust.

    Read more about pounamu and stone in this Level 4 Connected resource He Māpihi Maurea – A Prized Possession.


    This content was developed as part of a project 'Te ohomauri o Wairere – the empowering life force of Wairere', funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment through its Unlocking Curious Minds initiative.

    Rights: Crown Copyright, 2016.

    Curious Minds

    Find out more about the Curious Minds programme on the website of the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE).

      Published 24 June 2024 Referencing Hub articles

        Pounamu as taonga

        The strong hononga ā-wairua (spiritual connection) iwi Māori have with pounamu is reflected in the way the various stone types were named. Each pounamu type was given an identity that corresponded to the taiao that iwi and hapū lived in. Taonga were also named after tūpuna or kaitiaki animals that held a special place for the wearer. These taonga could also have had a connection to tūtohu whenua (significant places).

        Rights: © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

        Pounamu adze

        A pounamu adze. Traditionally, carving tools were made from pounamu or stone. This adze was discovered in the early 19th century.

        Origin stories of pounamu

        There are many origin stories of pounamu around the motu. Te Waipounamu, the only place pounamu can now be found in Aotearoa, literally means greenstone waters. Many of the oral histories of pounamu revolve around a taniwha named Poutini coming across a woman bathing in the northern seas of the Bay of Plenty. This tale about Poutini and his taking of Waitaiki has been passed down by generations.

        Ngāi Tahu children grew up knowing of Tamāhua and his pursuit of his wife down through the islands. They learned how this legend shaped the natural environment, and why we cherish and protect our resources today.

        Ngāi Tahu Pounamu

        The following telling is from LINZ Place Names stories. The text is Crown copyright administered by Toitū Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand and has been released under CC BY 4.0:

        Poutini was a taniwha, a giant water being. He was guardian for Kahue (Ngahue), the atua or deity of pounamu, greenstone. The only being that Poutini feared was another taniwha named Whatipū, the guardian for Hinehōaka, the atua of hōaka, sandstone. Grinding with sandstone 'knives' was the only way the tūpuna could cut the tough pounamu stone.

        Once, when Poutini was being pursued in the oceans by Whatipū, he took refuge in a shady corner of a bay at Tūhua (Mayor Island). It was early morning. Lying quietly in the still morning water, Poutini saw a beautiful woman coming down to the water's edge to bathe. Her name was Waitaiki. He watched as she removed her clothes and slipped into the sea. He lusted after her.

        Rights: New Zealand Geographic Board, CC BY 4.0

        The Legend of Poutini

        Poutini was a taniwha and kaitiaki for Kahue, guardian of pounamu. In this pūrākau we learn more about Poutini and his abduction of Waitaiki, a beautiful wahine from the Bay of Plenty to Te Waipounamu. They are pursued by her tane, Tamāhua throughout the motu. He is sadly unsuccessful in her rescuing her as she is hidden by Poutini in the awa Arahura.

        Illustration by Cliff Whiting.

        Disregarding the danger of being discovered by his enemy, Whatipū, he slipped through the waters of the bay and with a swirl of water – and not a sound – he caught Waitaiki and fled with her across the sea towards the mainland.

        Meanwhile, back at Tūhua, Waitaiki's husband, Tamāhua, woke and called to his wife. No answering call came and, disturbed, he went looking for her. He found her clothes at the water's edge and knew that some dreadful fate had befallen her. Distraught, he went to his tūāhu (place of ritual) and sought to discover her fate by the powers of karakia (incantation) and divination. He used a tekateka to gain the knowledge he sought. A tekateka is a small, dart-like spear. He hurled it in the air and it hung there quivering and pointing to the mainland in the direction taken by Poutini and his beautiful captive, Waitaiki. Rushing to his canoe, Tamāahua paddled off in pursuit.

        Poutini had stopped at Tahanga on the Coromandel Peninsula and lit a fire on the beach to warm Waitaiki. Then he fled across the land to Whangamatā on the western shore of Lake Taupō where he lit another fire for Waitaiki. Meanwhile, Tamāhua landed on the beach at Tahanga and discovered the fire, but the ashes were cold. Using his tekateka again to divine the direction of his quarry, he took off in pursuit, eventually arriving at Whangamatā. He discovered the remains of the second fire and, again resorting to use of his tekateka, travelled on in pursuit of Poutini and Waitaiki, still ignorant of what had happened or who was involved.

        The chase went on – fires and tekateka at every pause. To Rangitoto or D'Urville Island, to Whangamoa in the hills above Whakatū (Nelson) and to Onetāhua or Farewell Spit. Then down the western coast of the South Island to Pāhua near Punakaiki and on past Māwheranui, past Taramakau and Arahura, right to Mahitahi where the tūpuna when travelling south left the land and took to the sea using canoes. As he crossed the mouth of the Arahura River, Tamāhua noticed the water was not as cold as the water of other rivers he had been crossing, but he was too hot in pursuit to waste time – the tekateka was drawing him southwards.

        By canoe he paddled south from Mahitahi to Takiwai at the mouth of Piopiotahi, Milford Sound. Here he found the tekateka hovering in the air and pointing back along the route he had just come. Frustrated and angry, he headed north again following the tekateka. It paused, waiting for him, at the mouth of the Arahura River, where he had noted the water was warmer on his journey south. By incantations he knew that his beloved Waitaiki was in distress up the Arahura River valley. He prepared himself, as a warrior, for battle.

        Poutini was indeed hiding in the upper Arahura River, by a stream which flows into the main river. That stream we call today Waitaiki. He knew, because he was of the atua, that Tamāhua was coming up river, prepared to kill him. He knew he had little chance of escape should he be found, but he did not want to leave his beautiful captive. Deciding that if he couldn't have her then no-one else would either, he changed her into his own essence – pounamu – and laid the woman-stone in the bed of the river, just by the junction of the stream now called Waitaiki with the main river. Then he slipped silently away downstream, right past the wrathful husband, Tamāhua, striding up intent on destruction. Poutini swam to the coast and ever since he has cruised its waters as the kaitiaki, guardian spirit, of the land and its sacred stone.

        That is why the coast is known as Te Tai Poutini, 'the tides of Poutini'.

        Tamāhua found his beautiful wife Waitaiki. She was lying in her final bed, all grey-green and smooth – īnanga stone. He began to tangi for her and for himself at his loss. When his tangi was complete he looked around him and named two hills, Tūhua after his island home, and another Tamāhua after himself. He then began the long return journey whence he had come. He married another woman and had many children and is known in the traditions of several tribes of the Coromandel coast/northern Bay of Plenty region.

        Ever since those ancient times, when the winter snows melt in spring and the waters tumble down the wild Arahura gorges, pieces of pounamu are broken off the great body of Waitaiki and make their way down the riverbed. These are the uri, children, of Waitaiki, the mother lode of the stone and the parent of the mauri that lies within pounamu.

        This story is really an oral map of the ancient quarries from which the tūpuna took their valued stones. Tūhua gave them Mayor Island obsidian, a volcanic glass with its own special colour; Tahanga was the great quarry for basalt used in making adzes; Whangamatā takes its name from matā, the ordinary black obsidian. The obsidians were used for sharp knives – the throw-away razor blades of those times.

        Rangitoto, D'Urville Island, is the site of the huge quarries where pākohe, metamorphised argillite, was cut from the land. Pākohe was taken too from the high hill Whangamoa. Onetahua, Farewell Spit, is where 'floater' stones from the Nelson mineral belt are washed up in convenient sizes for shaping into tools and ornaments. The Pāhua flints are found embedded in limestone near Punakaiki. These were specially valued for drilling holes in pounamu. Takiwai at Piopiotahi, Milford Sound, was the quarry for bowenite jade, a soft, translucent stone valued for ornaments but useless for tools because it is not tough and hard like pounamu – the tungsten steel of our tūpuna. The finest pounamu lies in the bed of the Arahura River.

        In the story of Poutini are summarised the findings of the first 'geological survey' of New Zealand.

        Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

        Poutini and Tamāhua

        Pūrākau are oral stories that offer detailed information in which stories and events can be remembered from generation to generation. The narrative of Poutini kidnapping and fleeing with the wife of Tamāhua in the Bay of Plenty to Te Waipounamu also offers an oral map of ancient stone sources. Tūpuna Māori held mātauranga that was captured in pūrākau such as these.

        Map by M.Bitten, CC BY-SA 4.0

        Place names from the Poutini story

        Waitaiki (Stream of) Waitaiki
        Te Tai Poutini The tides of Poutini
        Tūhua (Hill of) Tūhua
        Tamāhua (Hill of) Tamāhua

        Stone sources linked in the Poutini story

        Tūhua Mayor Island (obsidian)
        Tahanga Tahanga (basalt)
        Whangamatā Whangamatā (obsidian)
        Rangitoto ki te Tonga D'Urville Island (argillite)
        Whangamoa Hills above Nelson (argillite)
        Onetahua Farewell Spit (argillite)
        Pāhua Pāhua (flint)
        Takiwai Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) (bowenite)
        Arahura Arahura (pounamu)

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