People of the Land

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NGĀ TANGATA WHENUA

People of the Land

Over one thousand years ago successive groups of Polynesian people from the Central Pacific began to migrate south to seek new homes. They were guided across trackless ocean by observing movements of the stars and to these shores by the homeward flight of returning birds. From the formation of distant cloud patterns they first named this land Aotearoa.

Ngā Tangata Whenua (people of the land) gained useful knowledge in the utilisation of plants. These early ancestors of the present day Māori brought with them some of their most treasured possessions – seeds and plants on which their very survival depended. Over time the earliest inhabitants progressed from food gathering to subsistence cultivation, even rotational cropping. The most successful import was Kumara (Ipomaea batatas), a sweet potato. Foods as diverse as a form of bread made from the pollen of raupo (Typha sp.) to the extraction of edible starch from the poisonous berries of the Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigata) were commonly used. Nectar gathered from the open flowers of the Harakeke, (flax, Phormium tenax) provided a seasonal touch of sweetness.

Wild plants also provided other basic needs such as building materials, clothing, baskets and cordage needed for fishing nets. The production of Rongoa (herbal medicines) is still popular even today. Each plant species was given a name and the knowledge of its use was passed down through the generations.