Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Stone Implements of the Maori

Nephrite Known to Polynesians

page 189

Nephrite Known to Polynesians

It seems to be a fact that nephrite or jade was known to the Polynesians prior to the arrival of the last migrants from northern isles at New Zealand about the fourteenth century. There is nothing surprising in this when we know what bold and skilful sea-voyagers the Polynesians were in former times. They may have obtained much stone from New Caledonia, or, possibly, from New Guinea, and also from New Zealand. There are Maori traditions to the effect that the prized pounamu (nephrite) was taken by voyagers from these isles to the island groups further north. In one such story the acquisition of the kumara, or sweet potato, by the people of the east coast was marked by a voyage to the Pacific isles, and the presentation of greenstone is hinted at. This was the act of Pou-rangahua, who sought out Kani-oro, and besought her to give him some of her treasure, whereby he might recompense those who had befriended him. This Kani-oro was a guardian of the pounamu.

It is now becoming known that there was much more inter-communication between New Zealand and the isles of Polynesia in former times than we wot of. It has been recorded by Colonel Gudgeon that in past centuries migrants from New Zealand fared northwards and settled in the Cook Islands, and also at Manihiki and Tongareva. Again, Mr. Percy Smith has shown that the natives of Rarotonga were acquainted with nephrite, which they termed toka matie (literally, green or grass-coloured stone). At Niue Island Mr. Maxwell obtained a "greenstone" adze that had been dug up in a cultivation. He remarks, "It is very ancient, and undoubtedly made of greenstone, but of inferior quality to that of New Zealand." He found that the present generation of natives know nothing of the implement or of the stone of which it is made. "The implement is," says Mr. Maxwell, "intensely hard, though more roughly made than those of New Zealand."

"It has been stated that the early navigators found in several of the islands of the Pacific stone axes and other articles of green jade, a stone which is believed to be found in situ only in New Zealand, New Caledonia, and the Louisiade Archipelago…. It is said that the jade of New Caledonia is sometimes white in colour, with green veins in it, and semi-transparent." ("Journal of the Polynesian Society," vol. i, page 128.)

Concerning some stone axes or adzes from New Guinea, Mr. Jack, Government Geologist of Queensland, remarked, "The hardness of the New Guinea specimens is too great for serpentine, page 190although low for true nephrite. The hardness of the New Zealand jade varies very widely (3.5 to 6.5). On the whole, it appears to me that the material of the weapons must be classed with the jade of New Zealand. These stone axes of New Guinea, it appears, represent the standard of currency in great transactions, such as the purchase of a canoe, or a pig, or in obtaining a wife…. The greatest standard of currency in New Guinea is the jade or greenstone axe." ("Journal of the Polynesian Society," vol. i, page 273).

It has been argued that it is impossible that the Maoris could have been acquainted with the mode of working greenstone when they left Polynesia and came to New Zealand, also that they must have acquired their skill in working stone after they made these islands their home. But we have a well-known native tradition that one Ngahue took a block of greenstone from New Zealand to Polynesia prior to the migration hither in the fourteenth century; and, as other voyagers came to New Zealand and returned to Polynesia before that migration, it is highly probable that they took pieces of nephrite with them, not to speak of what may have been obtained at New Caledonia or elsewhere, It cannot, surely, be doubted that the Maori was acquainted with the art of working and polishing stone when he arrived in New Zealand. Captain Cook and other early voyagers speak of the tools made from hard stone by Tahitians and other islanders.

It would aiso appear that we place the date of the discovery and use of greenstone in New Zealand at much too late a date. This error has, we believe, originated in another error—viz., the mistake made by the Rev. Mr. Stack in trying to prove that the original native tribes (tangata whenua) of the South Island were descendants of the immigrants of the historic migration of the fourteenth century, or, at least, that they settled in the South Island at a time subsequent to the arrival of the aforesaid immigrants. In the light of later information, the dates given by the Rev. Mr. Stack for the arrival of the various successive tribes or peoples in the South Island, and for the duration of their sojourn there, can no longer be relied on. In fact, they are clearly wrong, and the earlier dates must be pushed much further back. It is clear that Polynesians, or a mixed people, must have been settled in New Zealand for at least one thousand years, and possibly for a longer period. It is also highly probable that the old-time people of these isles, who here flourished long before the immigration of circa 1350, were acquainted with the nephrite of the South Island, and also that they worked it to some extent. The Ngai-Tahu folk of the South Island, descendants of the eponymic ancestor Tahu-potiki, have claimed that their ancestors page 191knew not the nephrite until they had left the North Island and settled in the South. This is highly improbable; but, if so, the commonly accepted date for the Ngai-Tahu occupation of the South Island must certainly be wrong. The knowledge and use of nephrite cannot be brought down to so late a date, either in the South or North Islands.

According to tradition, from the block of nephrite taken by Ngahue from New Zealand to the isles of Polynesia were made certain adzes and pendants, and those adzes were used in hewing out the canoes "Arawa," "Matatua," &c., by which the migrants of the fourteenth century came to these shores.

In 1891, at Shag Point, on the east coast of the South Island, a piece of greenstone with marks of grinding on its surface was found by Mr. Hamilton. "It was found imbedded in the great bed of moa-bones broken by human hands, in a zone where, amid masses of fractured bones, implements of moa-bont and cut fragments were also found" (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxiv, p. 496). In describing this find Mr. Chapman says, "It was several feet under the surface, and within a few inches of the sand-bed on which the mass of bones lay, and in the near neighbourhood we found many mao-skulls attached to long strings of vertebrae lying in situ."

According to the accepted dates, the Waitaha people of the South Island flourished there prior to 1577, about which time the Ngati-Mamoe Tribe began to attack and destroy them. These latter people were displaced about a hundred years later by Ngai-Tahu. So say the authorities. This would imply that the Ngai-Tahu people did not become acquainted with the prized nephrite until a little over two hundred years ago. This we cannot agree with, though doubtless they did not possess much of it prior to their migration from the North Island. It should be distinctly understood that Ngati-Mamoe was a tangata whenua tribe, a division of the original people of New Zealand, and not an offshoot of the migrants of circa 1350. Ngati-Mamoe seem to have originally resided in the Napier district.

Tradition tells of numerous movements of tribes from the North to the South Island, and it is probable that the desire to be near the source of supply of the highly prized nephrite was at least one of the causes of such migrations or gradual movements of peoples. Thomson says, in his "Story of New Zealand," vol. i, page 92, "About fifteen hundred persons of Ngai-Tahu and Rangitane (tribes) live on the east coast of the South Island…. They sprang from Ngati-Kahungunu, and migrated from the North to the Middle (South) Island two centuries ago in the hope of obtaining page 192possession of the district in which the invaluable greenstone is found.

"A greenstone atua (image representing a god) named Arahura was brought in the 'Arahura' canoe (to New Zealand); and the 'Arawa,' 'Tainui,' 'Matatua,' 'Takitimu,' 'Kurahaupo,' Tokomaru,' and 'Matawhaorua' (canoes of migration of fourteenth century to New Zealand) were all hewn out with the celebrated greenstone axes made from Te Poutini, the 'stone fish' of Ngahue."

In Sir George Grey's "Polynesian Mythology" we also see the statement that the above canoes were hewn out by means of greenstone adzes made from the nephrite obtained by Ngahue in New Zealand, the names of such adzes having also been preserved.

Mr. Rutland has published in the "Transactions of the New Zealand Institute" a paper entitled, "Did the Maori discover the Greenstone?" By "Maori" he evidently means the last migration of Polynesians to these isles, and does not include in that term the original people of the land. This writer states that the original tribes of New Zealand undoubtedly possessed the art of working nephrite—at least, those who lived on the South Island. He also seems to believe that "A knowledge of the greenstone, the superstitions connected with it, the mode of working, and an idea of its value that made them seek it as we now seek gold were imported from their former home." That home he places in New Caledonia, where jade is found, and where, "As in New Zealand, when Europeans discovered the island, the rude natives were manufacturing ornaments and implements of the venerated material." The writer implies that the rude natives of New Caledonia may have learned the art of working the local jade from another people whom they found in possession of that island, and that there is reason to believe that the "modern" Maori (he of the fourteenth-century migration) so learned the art of working the New Zealand nephrite from the people whom he found living here.

It would seem probable that the nephrite of the South Island was known to and worked by the original occupants of that island, if not also by those of the North. At the same time, the original settlers on the South Island may have remained there a long time ere they discovered the nephrite or bowenite, both being found in but small areas in wild and inhospitable districts.

Being found within so small an area, and one so inaccessible to most tribes, it follows that nephrite was, in most districts, both scarce and valuable. This is probably the reason why so few pieces of it, worked or unworked, are found in old middens, village-sites, page 193&c., in comparison with similar specimens of other kinds of stone that were more easily obtained. It often occurs that numbers of ordinary stone implements, rejects, and pieces of unworked stone are found at old village-sites, or near sandstone boulders used as grinding-stones in former times. Unless near the source of supply, there were but few rejects or waste of nephrite. Small pieces broken off in reducing a slab to desirable sizes were worked up into small ornaments. Even pieces of unworked nephrite were looked upon, in many places, as we look upon an uncut diamond—an item to be treasured. Such a piece would serve as a gift, or to enhance the purport of some custom. It is recorded among the Tuhoe Tribe that when a person disposed of the severed umbilical cord of his child, by placing it under a boundary-mark or in a tree, he would sometimes place with it such a small piece of nephrite. This seems to have enhanced the efficiency and prestige of the act. Nephrite was too scarce in most parts, and hence too valuable to be carelessly treated. Hence, but little of it would be misplaced or lost. Doubtless many of the nephrite implements, &c., found have been concealed in former times by means of burying, placing in caves, hollow trees, &c. This was a common custom among the natives when expecting to be attacked. Even now valued implements of nephrite and other stone are sometimes buried for safe keeping. In former times, doubtless, the owners of such buried items were often slain, and the implement thus lost for ever, unless turned up by the plough of the modern farmer. When the pa (fortified hamlet) at Wai-mapihi, Pukerua, was taken by Ngati-Toa and others, it is said that the hapless refugees concealed many valued implements of nephrite somewhere up the Wai-mapihi Stream.

In speaking of the great number of nephrite implements seen by Cook and others, even in the far north, Colenso says, "The great number appears the more remarkable when it is considered that they always endeavoured to hide them securely in time of war, through which great numbers have been lost."

When Ngati-Raukawa were fleeing from Te Kuititanga in 1839, one of them, hard pressed by the pursuing warriors of Te Atiawa, is said to have thrown a valued nephrite weapon into a swamp at or near Kukutauaki. When the road was being made over the rugged forest ranges from Ahi-Kereru to Rua-tahuna (1895-1902), two finely formed stone implements (patu) were found that had in former times been concealed at the base of trees in that wild region. Implements of nephrite and other stone were also sometimes placed with the dead in graves and mortuary caves, where they are occasionally found. The discovery of implements of nephrite associated page 194with bones of extinct birds at Monck's Cave, Banks Peninsula, is of interest (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxiv, p. 495).

On the east coast of the South Island many nephrite items—adzes, heitiki, &c.—have been found buried in the earth, on the sites of huts deserted long ago. Mr. Reynolds, in a series of newspaper articles, has given a most interesting account of the finding of a great number of stone implements and ornaments on old village-sites. In one day he found seven greenstone adzes in such a place. To judge from his descriptions, many of the items found must have been buried under the earthen floors of the huts in former times.

Mr. Colenso remarks on the finding of a nephrite adze in a most remote and unlikely spot. In the year 1847 he crossed the rugged Ruahine Mountains, where no track existed, so seldom did natives essay the arduous trip. "We had just emerged from a heavy belt of forest, and were sitting down in the open outside in the sun, resting awhile before we proceeded; one of my baggage-bearers, who had a short hard-wood spear, kept poking it into the earth, when suddenly he felt something under his spear different from a root or wood; he proceeded to disinter it, and there, under at least a foot of soil, was a very handsome though small greenstone axe; its bevelled edge was very regular and quite perfect. I might have had it, but I did not then care about it."

The Rev. J. W. Stack states, "I heard from the late Tamihana te Rauparaha that when the Rev. Riwai te Ahu returned from a cruise in the Melanesia Mission vessel he brought back from some island a piece of greenstone."

Dr. Shortland, in his notes supplied to Mr. Chapman (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxiv, p. 516), says, "A celebrated (nephrite) ear-drop, Kaukau-matua, is reported to have been brought from Hawaiki by Tama-te-kapua, a chief of the Arawa Tribe, and was in the possession of the chief Te Heuheu … but was buried with him and others in a landslip at Taupo (in 1846), and has never since been recovered." We shall see anon that this pendant, famed in Maori song and story, was made of nephrite taken from New Zealand to the isles of Polynesia.

Mr. Percy Smith states that pounamu (nephrite) was known by name to the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands, who seem to have had no communication with New Zealand for about five centuries past. He also says (see Mr. Chapman's paper), "I feel little doubt that the pounamu has played an important part in inducing the early voyagers to direct their paddles towards New Zealand." The same paper contains an interesting extract from a page 195French work by Jules Garnier, who examined an ancient jade quarry and workshop on Ouen Island. He was informed by a native that it was the stone formerly used for making axes. "Formerly, people came from as far as the Loyalty Islands to search for pieces. The lifetime of a man was not always sufficient to finish one (axe). Thus such an axe was the most valued possession of a chief." The rock seen by Garnier he describes as being "Somewhat translucent, of a very pure white, among which ran veins of a delicate green."