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Volume 65, 1936
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New Zealand Greenstone

[Read before the Otago Institute, October, 1932; received by the Editor, 4th December, 1934; issued separately, December, 1935.]


The ethnographic study of greenstone began in 1768 with the observations of Captain Cook, which, though scanty, are of considerable importance. It was continued by a series of observers of less weight until 1891, when Mr (afterwards Sir Frederick) Chapman read before the Otago Institute the most important paper yet written on the working of greenstone. In 1912 appeared Elsdon Best's memoir on Maori adzes, which included a lengthy section on greenstone. This consists principally of copious quotations from the literary sources. Best's comments are always of interest and often of great value, but he himself had not been able to collect from Maori sources much data on this subject. Beattie's notes published in 1920 are the most important secured from the Maoris, so far as inland greenstone is concerned.

The methods of working greenstone will not be discussed in the present paper. The ethnographic data are treated under the following four headings:—

  • A. Evidence relating to the localities where the Maoris found greenstone in situ.

  • B. Maori myths relating to the origin of greenstone.

  • C. Date of Maori discovery of greenstone, and the culture of the earliest users.

  • D. The circulation of greenstone among the Maoris.

A. Evidence Relating to Localities Where Found in situ.

It is not necessary to quote at length the whole literature on this subject. Cook* (1785, p. 139) says: “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 of Queen Charlotte's 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;

[Footnote] * Bibliographic references will be found in the list of literature cited at the end of the paper.

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South Island New Zealand

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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”; he refers to the map published in the account of his first voyage.

Forster, writing at the same place in 1773 (1778, pp. 18, 19), says: “This stone is commonly brought by the natives from the interior parts of Queen Charlotte's Sound to the South West, in which direction they pointed. We asked for its native place, and they called it Poenamoo, from whence probably the abovementioned part of the country obtained the denomination of Tavai Poenamoo: but next to Motoo-aroo, on the little islet, where the natives formerly had one of their hippa's or strong holds, this stone is found in perpendicular or somewhat oblique veins, of about two inches thickness, in the above-mentioned strata of talcous greyish stone. The nephritic is seldom solid or in large pieces, for the greatest fragments we saw, never exceeded twelve or fifteen inches in breadth, and about two inches in thickness.”

Polack, following Cook in some points, says (1838, pp. 343, 345): “The poenamu … is found in the channel of a river lake, which has a distant communication with the sea. … It is disposed in its natural bed, on the banks of the lake, and, similar to flint, has a whitish incrustation on its outer edges. It lies in layers not of a large size. When first dug from its bed, it is found to be of a soft nature, but it hardens on exposure to the air. … The priests … said the poenamu was originally a fish, who, naturally vexed at being unceremoniously taken out of the water, transformed itself into a stone.”

Wilkes (1848, p. 390) says: “This stone is procured from the southern island, near the borders of a small lake, which receives its name from the stone, being called Tewai Pounamu or the Greenstone Water. … Our consul interpreted for me a singular story that the southern natives had invented, relative to these stones: ‘That they were found in a large fish, somewhat resembling a shark, which they were obliged to capture and kill for the purpose of obtaining them. When first taken from the stomach of the fish, the stone is soft, but from exposure becomes hard, and must be wrought in its soft state.’ This story was related by Pomare.” At Akaroa Wilkes (loc. cit., p. 406) reports: “The only account he could give of the locality of this green stone was, that it was found to the southward, in a large bed between two mountains.”

Writing under date January 13, 1844, camped on the south bank of the Waitaki River, Shortland (1851, p. 205) says: “Mokihi completed; but as the wind was strong from the N.E., Huruhuru put off launching them till the morning. Huruhuru's leisure in the evenings was employed in giving me information about the interior of this part of the island, with which he was well acquainted. He drew, with a pencil, the outline of four lakes, by his account, situated nine days' journey inland of us, and only two from the west coast, in a direction nearly due west of our position. One of these, named Wakatipua, is celebrated for the ‘pounamu,’ found

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on its shores, and in the mountain torrents which supply it. It is probably the “Wai-pounamu,” of which the natives spoke in reply to the enquiries of Captain Cook and Mr Banks, who supposed it to be the name of the whole island.” In the map facing this statement, which follows the drawing made by Huruhuru, Lake Waka-tipua is described without qualification as “the famed ‘Waipounamu.’”

Thomson (1859, vol. i, p. 7) says: “In the centre of the Middle Island are tablelands and several extensive lakes; one, called Te Wai Pounamu, is said to be of a green colour, with greenstone rocks forming its banks.” Best, who states that Thomson is evidently following Maori information here (p. 163), records: “In Lieutenant McDonnell's Chart of New Zealand, 1834, the ‘Lake of Greenstone’ is located north of Port Otago.”

Best (1912, p. 159) says: “Mr Chapman states that since writing his paper on greenstone he has ascertained ‘that the rare stone called inanga, named from its resemblance to the colour of whitebait, was found between Mount Alfred and Mount Earnslaw at the head of Lake Wakatipu. My informant, Rawiri te Maire, eighty-five years of age, had never been there; older men had told him. The actual spot is lost.’”

H. Beattie (1920, p. 45) says: “In his admirable paper, … Mr Justice Chapman states that nowhere did the Maori get greenstone in an inland locality, and thus he considers Shortland's statement that it was procured at ‘Lake Wakatipua’ is erroneous. The southern Maori assure me that Shortland's information was correct, and that you can still see the place where the pounamu was got at Te Koroka, a mountain up the Dart River. The old man said, ‘Pounamu of the inaka kind, was found at Te Koroka, at the head of Whakatipu. It was the only place where it was got inland. Takiwai greenstone was found at Milford and elsewhere.’ Another said, ‘Te Koroka, where they got the greenstone, is north of Wakatipu. Taumaro is the name of the mountains between Wakatipu-wai-tai and Wakatipu-wai-maori, and Te Koroka is one of those heights.’”

“Some of the Maori say ‘Wakatipu’ and others ‘Whakatipu.’ It was explained to me that the word occurs in five place-names. The mountains west of the lake are called Whakatipu, and the lake is known as Whakatipu-wai-maori (Fresh-water Whakatipu). The Dart River is Te-awa-Whakatipu, the Hollyford River is Whakatipu-katuku, and Lake McKerrow is Whakatipu-wai-tai (Salt-water Whakatipu). These last three are all on the track by which the Maori went from the head of Lake Wakatipu to Martin's Bay on the West Coast.

“One old Maori said, ‘Under Te Koroka is a place now called Maori Hill, I believe, but known of old as Puketai, after a chief of note who died there. Near this spot stood a kaika called Puia, and there the Maori lived when getting the greenstone. The general name of the whole district north of Lake Wakatipu was Te-wahi-pounamu.’ This last statement conflicts with Mr Justice Chapman's conclusion … that Te-wai-pounamu is the correct form of the

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South Westland and North-west Otago

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name, although there is nothing to prevent the latter form having been applied to the rivers on the west coast. A chapter could be written on the elision or addition of ‘h’ in the southern dialectal usages; and in any case—again to differ from the conclusions of Mr Justice Chapman—the pronunciation of ‘wai’ and ‘wahi’ by a southern Maori are often so alike as to be indistinguishable save to an acute or trained ear.

“Before leaving the subject of greenstone in the Wakatipu district I may add that Mr James Cowan kindly lent me some notes he had gathered from the southern Maori in 1905, and among them are the following items of information: ‘Beyond the head of Whakatipu on the road to Martin’s Bay, somewhere near Lake Harris Saddle, is the place where the Maori used to get koko-tangiwai.’ ‘Te Koroka is a bold peak at the head of Lake Whakatipu, and the Maori got a sort of coarse greenstone there.’”

“An old Maori said to me, ‘Pekerakitahi is a mountain standing by itself at the head of Wakatipu’ (Mount Earnslaw). ‘There is greenstone in it; because Te Ariki, who lived seven generations ago, took some pounamu from Te Koroka and hid it in Pekerakitahi, where it went like the skin of a tuatara. If you break the rock you will find the greenstone inside. A mountain and creek both called Pekerakitahi are at the head of Lake Wanaka, but it is the Wakatipu mountain I mean.’”

It is remarkable that virtually all the information secured from the Maoris, before the visits to Westland of Brunner and Heaphy, indicated that greenstone was found in the bed of a lake, and most of the informants, including one at Banks Peninsula, placed the lake in Otago. Lake Wakatipu is specified by Shortland, Chapman, and Beattie, while Polack's account, if of any value at all, seems to indicate Lake McKerrow, north-west of Wakatipu, and communicating with the sea by a short channel. The rivers Arahura and Teremakau* in northern Westland are never mentioned by these early informants as a source of supply, though they figure prominently in Maori myths relating to the origin of greenstone and probably provided the greater part of the greenstone used by Maoris in northern districts. The exploration of Westland by Brunner and Heaphy was followed at no long interval by the discovery of gold in Westland. From the auriferous sands and gravels a great amount of greenstone was secured by gold-miners, and came into the market. Lapidaries in New Zealand and overseas found a ready sale for faked curios, at first to the Maoris, and afterwards to tourists and collectors through the Maoris. The fact that Otago had ever produced greenstone was forgotten. Thus, Percy Smith stated (1910, p. 166): “It was the Arahura River, a few miles north of Hokitika, from which place, and its neighbourhood, the pou-namu has always been obtained.” Best stated (1912, p. 159), “Nephrite has only been found in the Taramakau and Arahura Rivers and

[Footnote] * In the Times Atlas the name of this river is spelt Teremakau. Chapman spells it Taramakau. Percy Smith (1910, p. 166) says: “Teremakau, not Taramakau, as usually spelt.” Best (1912, p. 159) says: “Taramakau, not Teremakau, as usually spelt.”

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their vicinity.” When Chapman wrote his great paper he named the same district, and denied that the Wakatipu district had ever been a source of supply. Later, as has been seen, on the authority of Rawiri te Maire, he recorded the Dart Valley in Otago as a source.

It is probable that the bowenite deposit at Anita Bay, Milford Sound, was discovered by the Maori as early as the nephrite deposits traversed by the Arahura and the Teremakau. The Maori continued to work the deposit until European times, and it was ultimately exploited by a Dunedin firm, who were responsible for the very large number of faked pieces in bowenite to be seen in collections.

B. Maori Myths Relating to the Origin of Greenstone.

The myth relating to Ngahue and his connection with greenstone has been collected from various Maori tribes, and each account has variations of its own. The following appear to be the most important points. Hine-tu-a-hoanga (Lady of the Grindstone, personification of the grindstone) was antagonistic to Poutini (personification of greenstone). Poutini belonged to Ngahue, who lived in Hawaiki. Ngahue fled overseas with his “fish,” as the Maoris described greenstone. One version states that he rode on his “fish.” They reached Tuhua Island in the Bay of Plenty, an island which yields the best quantities of obsidian and has given its name to that material. Thence they were driven by the Lady of the Grindstone. Quarrels between Poutini, on the one hand, and Waiapu (a stone used in making adzes) and Mataa (flint) are recorded, and finally Ngahue fled to the west coast of the South Island and hid Poutini in the bed of the Arahura. Ngahue tore off a side of his “fish” and took it back with him to Hawaiki, where it was made into pendants and adzes. The latter were used in hewing out the Arawa canoe. By a number of writers Ngahue has been regarded as an historical character, and New Zealand school-children are taught to regard him as one of the discoverers of New Zealand.

The tales from which the above incidents have been taken are all derived from North Island sources. Very different are the stories current among southern tribes. Mrs Pani Te Tau told the present writer that she was often told by her father, Mr T. Parata, that greenstone was brought to New Zealand by the canoe Te Arai-te-Uru and was deposited on the West Coast as far south as Milford Sound. The canoe was then brought overland to Moeraki—how, Mr Parata did not know, but such was tradition. Her stores and fittings were turned to stone and may still be seen as the Moeraki boulders.

Another myth of the greenstone centres round Tama-ahua, whose wives were abducted by Poutini (greenstone). In his pursuit of them Tama was guided by a magic dart which led him to the Arahura River. Here he found his wives Hina-ahuka (syn. kahurangi), Hina-aotea, and Hina-kawakawa. These are all names of varieties of greenstone. Percy Smith was puzzled as to the interpretation of Tama-ahua's adventures in Westland. But he concludes a discussion of the point (Smith, 1910, p. 23) as follows: “whatever we may think of the peculiar story of Tama-ahua and his search for the precious stone, the journey of Tumuaki, on the same errand, is

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historic, as will be seen.” Tumuaki went from Taranaki to the greenstone country and found a boulder of pounamu. In breaking it up he struck his finger with the hammer. He thoughtlessly put his finger in his mouth, for which impious act he was turned into stone. His wife, Hine-tu-a-hoanga (Lady of the Grindstone, a name which we have already seen in a quite different setting), went in search of him, but was drowned. Mr Smith dated these events about 1550.

The interpretation of these myths as history, and especially the allotting of dates, seems perilous.

C. Date of Maori Discovery of Greenstone, and Culture of the Earliest Users.

All the North Island myths relating to the origin of greenstone refer to the Arahura and the Teremakau Rivers; some of them include also the Milford Sound region. It is legitimate to conclude that these were the first-discovered sources of greenstone. The fact that information secured from the Maoris by Cook and his successors indicated a lake as the principal source of supply, and in a good many cases specified Otago as the region in which the lake lay, probably indicates that in more recent times a new source in Otago had entered into competition with the older one and had surpassed it in quantity if not in quality.

On general grounds it seems likely that the first Polynesians to explore New Zealand would discover greenstone, quantities of which must then have lain on western beaches and along the banks of the rivers and streams which traverse serpentine deposits. One of the principal objects of the Polynesian explorers would be to discover new and attractive materials for implements, weapons, and ornaments. It is therefore likely that the first maritime explorers of the South Island took back to their base specimens of pounamu. The pieces of greenstone that have occasionally been found in Polynesia probably crossed the sea in the period of exploration which included the discovery of New Zealand.* That greenstone was known to the earliest inhabitants of Otago, the moa-hunters, was demonstrated by Chapman and Hamilton (1892). Greenstone has since been found in moa-hunter beds by Teviotdale (1932). The culture of the moa-hunters has been shown to be characteristically Polynesian, and of that branch of Polynesian culture associated with the Society Islands (Skinner, 1923, p. 23; Teviotdale, 1932).

There is evidence that the Morioris of the Chatham Islands, who may be regarded as descendants of a section of the earliest inhabitants of New Zealand, were also acquainted with greenstone. The culture of the Morioris has been shown to be Marginal (or Tahitian) Polynesian. (Skinner, 1924, p. 335.)

D. Circulation of Greenstone Among the Maoris.

The word “circulation” is here used to indicate the process whereby greenstone passed from its source into the possession of tribes more and more distant from Otago and Westland until

[Footnote] * J.P.S., 1902, p. 263; 1933, p. 225.

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pieces reached places as remote as Stewart Island, Chatham Island, and the North Cape. The term “barter” has often been used to designate this process, but Firth (1929, p. 403) has shown clearly that the term is inappropriate.

Stories occur in Maori tradition of voyages undertaken by northern tribesmen to secure for themselves supplies of greenstone, and it is not improbable that in early times such voyages were the normal method whereby greenstone was circulated. With the settlement of the northern and eastern coasts of the South Island, journeys afoot must have largely replaced sea-voyages, the greenstone passing indirectly to the north by a process of reciprocal gifts.

The climate of the South Island is more rigorous than that of the North, and of Maori domesticated food-plants only the kumara was grown south of Cook Strait. Its successful cultivation became more and more difficult the further southward settlements were founded, until in South Canterbury it faded out, and in Otago it could not be cultivated at all. Settlement in these districts was not precluded on that account, for, in addition to wild substitutes, taro, kumara, and other northern products were procured by a process of exchange by reciprocal gifts. Of all southern products it seems likely that preserved moa-flesh was the first to be used in securing northern produce. After the extermination of the moa it is probable that the flesh of mutton-birds took the place of moa-flesh. Later still a trade was developed in Otago greenstone from the Wakatipu district. The Maoris state that this greenstone was of the inanga kind. The term inanga is primarily applied to whitebait, and is used in metaphor of light-coloured greenstone. Whether inanga greenstone was found on the Arahura-Teremakau field has not yet been determined in this research. It is probable also that greenstone of darker shades was found occasionally in the Otago field. But an examination of the greenstone in the Otago University Museum demonstrates that, in that district, pieces having light shades decisively outnumber dark ones. Further, of the pieces of dark greenstone found on Maori sites in Otago it is probable that some at least are derived from the Westland field.

Greenstone from the field at the head of Lake Wakatipu was carried to settlements on the southern and eastern coasts of Otago. The accumulation of great amounts of worked and partially worked greenstone on sites like Murdering Beach, near Dunedin, may safely be attributed to the trade requirements of the north. There is satisfactory evidence, not yet published, that virtually the whole of the Murdering Beach greenstone was brought together early in the nineteenth century.

The method of transport north was dictated by special geographical conditions. In the North Island, transport of goods was carried out wherever possible by canoe. The east coast of the South Island is rough and harbourless, except at Banks Peninsula and about Dunedin. In consequence, porterage was organized on a large scale to take the place of water transport north and south. The system has been described by Stack (p. 186): “The trade created by the system of food exchange established by Tu Rakautahi necessitated the employment of a large body of porters, who were constantly employed carrying heavy loads to and from the various pas extending

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from the north to the south of the Island. The labours of these men were greatly increased by the practice which prevailed of giving each more than one load to carry. This necessitated the formation of depots, between which the carriers went backwards and forwards, travelling over the same ground again and again, until they reached their final destination. The weight of an ordinary load was seldom short of a hundred pounds. Attached to the lower end of each burden was a sort of stool, to enable the porter to rest at any time during the journey, without the trouble of disengaging himself from his load.”

It is remarkable that no other investigator has described this system. But there is nothing unlikely in the existence of such a system, and it is confirmed by Andersen (1916, pp. 33–34), who relates that Te Maiharanui killed the porters who had carried his burdens north. The system seems to have reached its greatest development on the route between Otago and Banks Peninsula, but it was present north of the peninsula, and probably had its northern terminal about Kaikoura. It is presumably by this means that Otago greenstone passed to the north.

[Since this paper was written, Mr C. O. Hutton has informed the writer that in the course of geological field-work, he has obtained nephrite-greenstones in situ in the Caples Valley, west of Lake Wakatipu; and further, that a coarsely fibrous tremolite-schist obtained by him from Springburn Creek (Cromwell Survey District) is identical with an unusual specimen (No. 1840) described by Dr F. J. Turner (1935, p. 190) from a Maori camp site at the mouth of the Shag River. Details of Mr Hutton's work will appear in a later volume of this journal.]


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Chapman, F. R., 1891. On the Working of Greenstone or Nephrite by the Maoris, Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. 24, pp. 479–539.

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Stack, Rev. J. W., n.d. The Sacking of Kaiapohia, Whitcombe & Tombs.

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——, 1932. The Material Culture of the Moa-Hunters in Murihiku, J.P.S., vol. 41, pp. 96–119.

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