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The Stone Implements of the Maori

Expedition from Poverty Bay and Napier District to the South Island to Procure Nephrite, Circa 1510

Expedition from Poverty Bay and Napier District to the South Island to Procure Nephrite, Circa 1510.

The following account of an expedition that left Poverty Bay about the beginning of the sixteenth century in order to obtain nephrite in the South Island was furnished by Te Whatahoro, a man who possesses a vast fund of information regarding the ancient history of the Maori. He also supplies a genealogy from Rakai-hikuroa, showing sixteen generations down to the present time. This account shows that the northern tribes knew nephrite, and that those of the page 212South Island were adepts at working the same, sixteen generations ago at least.

In the days of Rakai-hiku-roa and Taraia, grandson and great grandson of Kahu-ngunu, a chief named Tu-te-kawa came from Turanga (Poverty Bay) with a small party on his way to the South Island in order to obtain a supply of the much-prized nephrite. He found the two chiefs above mentioned living with their clan at the Tane-nui-a-rangi pa, situated between Hastings and Clive. It was arranged that Tu-te-kawa should continue his journey by land to Te Whanga-nui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour) while Rakai and Taraia, with a party, should follow by sea somewhat later.

On passing through the Wai-rarapa district Tu-te-kawa rendered himself somewhat obnoxious to the local clans by slaying a woman and several children whom he came across in the forest at Aorangi, taking their flesh with him as food for the journey. On arriving at Te Whanga-nui-a-Tara he borrowed a canoe from the local clan residing in the fortified hamlet on Matiu (Soames Island) and at once continued on his way to the South Island.

When Rakai arrived at Matiu he found that Tu had departed, and that the murder of the woman and children had been discovered. Rakai called on the Wai-rarapa clans to reinforce his own party, and the whole force crossed the strait in nine canoes. They found Tu-te-kawa staying at Okiwi, south of Lyttelton Harbour, and, with great promptitude, slew him and his party.

Rakai now made arrangements with a local chief, one Maire-tu by name, to procure him a stock of nephrite. That chief sent off a party to Muri-whenua to procure the same, and they returned with four slabs that required ten men to carry them. As the local folk were adepts at the working of nephrite—the fashioning of implements therefrom—an arrangement was made by which the northern men undertook to perform the daily tasks of the local men, while the latter confined their labours to the working of the nephrite. This latter task continued for six months, when the blocks of nephrite were worked up into weapons and ornaments, and the northern folk returned to their homes with their prize.

As Muri-whenua seems to be a name applied to the southern part of the South Island, it is possible that the stone obtained may have been taken from the deposit near Lake Wakatipu mentioned by Mr. Chapman.

About the time of Tuahu-riri, some twelve generations ago, a party of North Island natives under Rangi-tama went from the Wellington district to the west coast of the South Island, and returned page 213with large stores of nephrite. This would be about three hundred years ago.

Hochstetter, in his work on New Zealand, says, "The natives used to make expeditions to the South Island for the purpose of gathering pounamu (nephrite)."

In his "Sketch of the Maori Races," published in the first volume of the "Transactions of the New Zealand Institute," Shortland says, "The fame of the pounamu stone, which was found on several streams or rivers on the west coast and in the interior of the South Island, stimulated large bodies of the Ngati-Kahungunu, the powerful east-coast tribe … to make war on Ngati-Mamoe; and after many years, by dint of a constant supply of fresh forces, they completely subdued and took possession of all their territory."

Regarding another myth connected with nephrite—viz., as to its being found in a soft state—we note a curious remark in Polack's work on New Zealand, vol. ii, page 30. "Green talc is held in the highest estimation by the natives. It is only found in the Island of Victoria* (?) in the lakes on the south-east side of the island. In its original state it is disposed in layers like flint, with a similar white incrustation on the edges. When first dug up it is said to be of a soft nature, hardening on exposure to the air. When not too thick, the talc is transparent, of a variety of shades in green."

At page 176 of the same volume occurs the following: "The New-Zealanders delight in decorating themselves with a profusion of gaudy ornaments…. Among the most ancient are those formed from the green talc or pounamu, which is also known as serpent stone, jade, &c., which is found on the borders of a lake towards the south-east extremity of the Island of Victoria (?). It is first obtained in a soft state, admitting of being easily moulded, but hardens on exposure to the air." Again: "By some the strange notion has been entertained that this stone was found in a soft state by the natives, it not being credited that they could have learnt the art of fashioning it otherwise." The source of the last-quoted remark we have mislaid.

Nicholas, in his "Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand," 1815, when speaking of Maori weapons, remarks: "Of these latter, the pattoo pattoo (patu), made of jade, is the most remarkable; but I found that Jem (a Maori), though very shrewd in other particulars, had fallen into an absurd notion which prevails among the natives respecting it. They assert it to be made of the internal substances of a fish, which, being boiled over the fire, dissolves into a glutinous page 214liquid, and is thus moulded into the shape of the pattoo pattoo, while it assumes a hard consistence by being left exposed to the air. It is surprising how this notion is so generally assented to in this part (Bay of Islands) of New Zealand, when its absurdity might be so easily detected by the admission of the people who make the instrument in question; but it would appear to me that these countenance the error from some motive of private interest."

Humboldt speaks of a similar stone as being obtained in a soft state in the upper Orinoco country, according to popular belief.

Mr. Tregear has an interesting note in the "Journal of the Polynesian Society," vol. xiii, page 193, on the same subject, wherein he shows that a similar belief is entertained in regard to jade in China. Also that "when Hermann von Schlagintweit visited the jade-quarries in the Kara-Kash Valley he found the newly excavated stone much softer than the exposed material."

Some of the natives living on the west coast of the South Island took Poutini as a tribal name for themselves. This seems to have occurred in comparatively modern times.

Mr. H. D. Skinner, in his interesting paper on the natives of the West Coast, states that the only voyage of any length made by the Poutini-Ngai-tahu Tribe was that from Bruce Bay to Milford Sound for the purpose of obtaining tangiwai or bowenite. He also states that "natives of other parts of New Zealand sometimes came round the coast in canoes"; and that "two double canoes loaded with greenstone once went from Milford to Waimate."

It is doubtless a fact that expeditions were occasionally made to the South Island by natives of the North for the purpose of obtaining greenstone; but most of that acquired by the tribes of the north, central, and east-coast districts must have been got by means of barter. Even the Tuhoe folk, in their remote and savage fastnesses, obtained slabs of the longed-for nephrite by means of barter.

In the account of his third voyage Captain Cook speaks of the trade in nephrite then carried on throughout the North Island, and of certain myths connected with the stone. "Notwithstanding the divided and hostile state in which the New-Zealanders live, travelling strangers who come with no ill design are well received and entertained during their stay; which, however, it is expected will be no longer than is requisite to transact the business they come upon. Thus it is that a trade for poenammoo [pounamu, nephrite], or green talc, is carried throughout the whole Northern Island. For they tell us that there is none of this stone to be found but at a place which bears its name, somewhere about the head page 215of Queen Charlotte Sound, and not above one or two days' journey at most from the station of our ships. I regretted much that I could not spare time sufficient for paying a visit to the place, as we were told a hundred fabulous stories about this stone, not one of which carried with it the least probability of truth, though some of their most sensible men would have us believe them. One of these stories is that this stone is originally a fish, which they strike with a gig in the water, tie a rope to it, and drag it to the shore, to which they fasten it, and it afterwards becomes stone. As they all agree that it is fished out of a large lake, or collection of waters, the most probable conjecture is that it is brought from the mountains, and deposited in the water by the torrents. This lake is called by the natives Tavai Poenammoo [Te Wai Pounamu]—that is, the water of green talc—and it is only the adjoining part of the country, and not the whole Southern Island of New Zealand, that is known to them by the name which hath been given to it on my chart."

Again Captain Cook mentions the trade in nephrite in his Journal, under date the 13th November, 1773: "But their greatest branch of trade was the green talc or stone called by them poenammoo, a thing of no great value; nevertheless, it was so much sought after by our people that there was hardly a thing they would not give for a piece of it." This trade was carried on between the Maoris of Queen Charlotte Sound and Cook's people.

Under date the 19th April, 1773, while at Dusky Sound, Cook says, "The chief, before he came on board, presented me with a piece of cloth and a green talc hatchet." This hatchet would be either an adze or a mere (a short weapon).

We are not certain as to whether Cook means an adze, or a mere, or patu, when he speaks of the stone hatchets of the Maori. While lying at Queen Charlotte Sound (4th June, 1773) he notes: "Two of them, the one with a spear, and the other with a stone hatchet in his hand, &c." The terms "hatchet," "axe," and "tomahawk," were used in a very loose manner by early voyagers. One applies the term "tomahawk" to the Maori weapon known as a patu.

Hochstetter, who travelled in New Zealand in 1859, says, "The natives used to make expeditions to the South Island for the purpose of gathering pounamu (nephrite)."

There is on record a statement made by Te Whiti, of Parihaka fame, that a North Island warrior named Kaihua once crossed the mountains from the east to the west coast of the South Island, where he and his party made five canoes, loaded them with pou-namu (nephrite), skins of seals, kakapo, dogs, &c., and then returned to the North Island.

page 216

We know from many sources the great value placed upon nephrite by the Maori; the more remote the source the greater the value of the stone. Nicholas, who sojourned a while in the northern part of the North Island in 1815, remarks, "Among the curiosities which we purchased of the natives were some axes made of porphyry, and others of a dark-coloured stone; but the most valuable ones were cut out from the jade, as were also a variety of small ornaments, which in particular attracted our attention for the ingenuity they displayed."

Blocks or slabs of nephrite were often given names, are referred to in song and tradition, and are sometimes mentioned in evidence given by natives in the Native Land Court. In his Orakei judgment, Mr. Fenton says, "Much was said of a greenstone slab called Whakarewha-tahuna, which it was alleged carried with it the mana of Tamaki, and possession of it was evidence of the ownership of the land. It appeared that this greenstone was used as a gong in Kiwi's pa at One Tree Hill." This slab of nephrite had been in the possession of the tribe for many generations, and many pieces of it had been used from time to time in the manufacture of heitiki and other pendants.

In his work on "Prehistoric Art" Mr. T. Wilson says that pieces of hard stone, notably jade, when suspended and struck give forth a sonorous sound.

At a meeting of natives held at Wai-kawa, near Picton, in 1856, anent the sale of lands to Europeans, a chief named Te One struck into the ground at the feet of the Land Purchase Commissioner a greenstone axe, saying, "Now that we have for ever launched this land into the sea, we hereby make over to you this axe, named Pae-whenua, which we have always highly prized from the fact of our having regained it in battle after it was used by our enemies to kill two of our most celebrated chiefs, Te Pehi and Pokai-tara. Money vanishes and disappears, but this greenstone will endure as a lasting witness of our act, as the land itself, which we have now under the shining sun of this day transferred to you for ever."

The Tuhoe Tribe used to obtain slabs of unworked nephrite from other tribes by means of barter. Such a rough slab is termed a papa pounamu. For one such obtained by them from Taupo they gave a heavy price in Native manufactures of divers kinds. The plan adopted seems to have been to make a present of fine garments, food products, &c., and then to drop a hint as to what articles would be most acceptable as a return present.

Some matter of interest will be found in an article on "The Modern History of a Block of Greenstone," by W. Colenso, in the "Trans-page 217actions of the New Zealand Institute," vol. xxvii, page 598. This famous block was named Nga Roimata o Ngati-Raukawa (the Tears of Ngati-Raukawa).

Weapons and ornaments made of nephrite were often possessed of considerable mana (prestige, &c), especially the former, the latter being highly prized as mementos of the dead of former generations. Thus, on more than one occasion a nephrite implement has been handed over by natives to the European purchasers of land. It represented the mana of the land—the ownership, &c.

It is highly probable that nephrite was first obtained by way of the West Coast only, which meant either a dangerous canoe-voyage or a very rough trip by land, not to speak of the danger of being attacked by hostile tribes on the way. After the discovery, however, of a negotiable pass over the Southern Alps, the natives of the east coast of the South Island would be able to procure the desired stone much more quickly, and, through them, it would reach the tribes of the east coast of the North Island, to whom they were related. The Rev. Stack says, "Most of the greenstone worked up in the South Island was carried across the Southern Alps on men's backs in a rough state. The labour of procuring the stone was very great. The tracks across the mountains were most dangerous, and some one skilled in prayers and charms always attended the party of carriers, who led the way, uttering petitions for safety whenever the party reached any particular difficulty. On reaching the (west) coast, the tohunga (priestly adept) performed certain religious rites, and retired to rest alone, and in his dreams a spirit would come and indicate the spot where a stone would be found. On waking he would summon his companions, and, spreading themselves along the river-bed, they would proceed up stream until they reached the spot indicated in the vision, when the stone was sure to be found, and received the name of the spirit who revealed its position." (See Trans. N.Z. Inst., xxiv, p. 514.)

Mr. Chapman mentions a "small ornament in the shape of a miniature axe [?adze] cut out of greenstone, after the manner adopted by the Bosnians," as being in the collection of nephrite implements, &c., made by the late Sir W. Buller.

It is probable that too much stress is laid on the tact of implements made of nephrite and other stone being found "beneath the roots of large forest trees." It would be hard to prove that they were not placed under such roots in modern, or comparatively modern, times. It is not an easy matter to decide upon.

The long thin adzes of greenstone, used much as ceremonial objects, and mounted on handles of wood elaborately carved, were highly prized by the Maori, and are now rare. The mere, or patu page 218pounarnu, seems to have been the most highly prized, however, of nephrite implements. It is a short weapon, and such items were made practically perfect in form and finish.

When metal tools were introduced into New Zealand nephrite began to depreciate in value among the natives.

In "Some Account of New Zealand," by Dr. Savage (who was at the Bay of Islands for a few months in 1805), at page 9 of the first edition occurs the following: "There is a green semi-transparent talc, brought from the interior, of considerable hardness, with which they make their tools and a number of ornaments. This had formerly been considered of great value, but, in proportion to the quantity of iron they obtain, their original implements formed of that material diminish in value among them." At page 70 he remarks, "Their common tools consist of adzes, chisels, small carving-tools, and needles for working the ornamental parts of their mats. The tools properly belonging to the natives are all formed of the green talc before mentioned." So that the "green talc;" or nephrite, must have been fairly plentiful at the Bay of Islands in 1805.

In vol. xxiv, page 539, of the "Transactions of the New Zealand Institute" may be found analyses of nephrite and jadeite from various countries.

The following brief notes have been taken from an excellent paper on "The Nephrite and Magnesian Rocks of the South Island of New Zealand," by A. M. Finlayson, printed in the "Journal of the Geological Society," 1909:—

  • Nephrite was known to the Maoris to exist only in the river-beaches and glacial drifts of the Teremakau and Arahura Rivers and the neighbouring country. Later, when the goldfields were opened up, it was found in the drifts in considerable quantity by the miners, and it soon came into demand for jewellers' purposes…. In the Griffin Range it occurs … in nodules and veins, varying in thickness from a few inches to a foot or more, in a mass of serpentine-talc-carbonate rock … The specific gravity of the mineral varies from 2.95 to 3.05…. The hardness of translucent and opaque, of pale and dark specimens alike, stands at 6.5 (Moh's scale), and no uniform variation can be detected.
  • Some of the New Zealand green nephrites are the most highly translucent specimens of this mineral that have ever been observed, with the exception of the rare "emerald jade". The general appearance of the mineral varies considerably.page 219
  • The following are the chief varieties of nephrite (greenstone) distinguished by the Maoris on the basis of colour and texture, although the differences are for the most part accidental, and do not affect the essential characters of the stone:—
    • Kawakawa.—Green of various shades, often full of small black spots and secretions, clouded and streaked, or dense and opaque…. Almost exclusively used by the lapidary and jeweller.
    • Inanga.—Pale-green and highly translucent…. Occurs usually in streaks and veins running through kawakawa, giving a handsome variegated appearance to the specimen. The most highly prized variety.
    • Auhunga.—Somewhat opaque, with the green colour of kawakawa and the opacity of inanga.
    • Totoweka.—A variety of kawakawa containing stains and streaks of red iron-oxide.
    • Rau-karaka.—An olive-coloured streaked or cloudy variety, often with a yellowish tinge. The essential pigment of the mineral appears to be ferrous silicate … Thickly clouded and variegated specimens, exhibiting various shades of green, show corresponding irregularity in the percentage of ferrous oxide.
    • Arzruni divided nephrites, according to their mode of origin, into two classes—(1) Primary nephrite, and (2) secondary nephrite, or nephrite derived by uralitization of pryoxenes … The nephrite of southern Liguria … occurs in association with talc, serpentine, and calcite … The nephrite is always found in the neighbourhood of faults or dislocations…. Nephrite is to be regarded as a rock, or as a mineral aggregate, rather than as a mineral … formed under deep-seated conditions by dynamic metamorphism of the serpentine-talc-carbonate rocks, assisted by movement and internal pressure…. The formation of the nephrite of New Zealand has been due to more than one type of chemical and mineralogical change. Of the four following modes of origin advanced, there is direct petrographical evidence of the first three, and a strong presumption of the fourth: (1.) Uralitization of pyroxenes. (2.) Contact action. (3.) Direct change of olivine into nephrite. (4.) Deep-seated metamorphism of serpentine-talc-carbonate rocks or of their prototypes.
    • True nephrite shows under the microscope a foliated or felted structure, to which it owes its very superior hardness or toughness, and which is certainly the result of great pressure and movement.

Sketch of carved maori head and oars

* Victoria seems to have been Polack's private name for the South Island of New Zealand.