Like so many other cultures, the Maori of New Zealand have valued jade for centuries, using it as an ornament, an artwork, a weapon and a tool.
Jade was believed to be first used in China. While the name greenstone has gained popular usage in New Zealand, to the Maori it is pounamu. As an artefact it has been located the length of New Zealand, but the rich green nephrite stone exists in the geology of the South Island only. In fact the Maori name for the island is Te Wai Pounamu, the Waters of Pounamu.
Despite the relative isolation of the jade beds and the sparseness of the South Island’s pre-European population, archaeological finds suggest jade was used from very early in the settlement of Aotearoa New Zealand.
The Value of New Zealand Jade
Greenstone has attributes that were invaluable to early Maori. Its durability and strength made it one of the best natural material available as a tool for hunting, and as a weapon of war. When polished it is smooth to the touch and of great beauty, giving it an intrinsic value as an adornment and a medium for worship. Pounamu’s importance to Maori has meant that traditions of cultural significance developed around it.
Nephrite occurs naturally in several South Island locations. The largest fields are on the West Coast around Hokitika, where erosion has formed and exposed the boulders that were first discovered by early Maori hunting parties. Hundreds of tonnes of quality jade were extracted from the region over the years.
Pounamu in Maori Legend
Maori legends surrounding pounamu have varied over time and place. The basic story surrounds Poutini, a fish that represented the stone. According to one legend Poutini fell out with Hine-Tua-Hoanga, the Lady of the Grindstone, in Hawaiki. He then fled to New Zealand with his protector Ngahue.
After being rebuffed on first arriving in the North Island, and being pursued by Hine-Tua-Hoanga, Poutini finally found refuge on the West coast of the South Island. Ngahue then broke a piece from Poutini and returned it to Hawaiki, where it was used to make the great migration canoes.
Greenstone Artefacts and Treasures
Implements such as adzes (toki) and chisels (whao) have been determined as the earliest items made from greenstone. The Polynesian voyagers brought stone tool technology to their new home, and soon found that pounamu was a superior material for chopping, cutting and shaping the great timbers of the New Zealand forest. The tools were also use to shape fishhooks and other items made from whalebone. Some toki were made strictly for ceremonial purposes, with a blade the highest quality stone affixed to an intricately carved wooden handle.
The mere, a small club for use in battle, was usually made of lesser stones, hardwoods and whalebone. To possess a mere pounamu meant that the warrior was of high standing within the tribe. It would be fashioned to a finely balanced hand-held weapon by using a natural slab of nephrite, with the grain running longitudinally to reduce the possibility of fracture on impact.
Pounamu was and still is used extensively to produce items of adornment. The hei-tiki is the most well known Maori artefact, a small stylised human form worn as a necklace. Ear pendants (kuru) were also common to some regions, often slender pieces up to 150mm in length hanging from a short chord. Amulets were made to depict a range of natural and abstract subjects.
Greenstone in New Zealand Today
The South Island’s greenstone is now protected, with rights belonging to the southern Ngai Tahu tribe, the resource’s traditional guardians. Pounamu is a New Zealand icon. Large boulders have been displayed prominently at the last two World Expos in Japan and China. Visitors to the New Zealand pavilion are invited to touch the stone for good luck, and for creating a personal connection with New Zealand.
The use of greenstone evolved from cultural norm to include commercial imperative as Europeans arrived and Maori traded their pounamu wares for new Western goods. Later production of greenstone products would be taken up by European business interests. Traditional craftsmanship waned, but the importance of pounamu to the Maori people never did. The skills required to produce fine pieces is experiencing a resurgence thanks to places as Te Puia, the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, with government support.
- Beck, RJ., & Mason, M., Mana Pounamu, New Zealand Jade, Reed, Auckland, 2002