When Māori arrived in Aotearoa/New Zealand in the late 13th century, they found a land quite different to the Polynesia from which they had travelled. The cooler climate meant that some of the food crops they’d brought with them could not survive. Other crops, such as kūmara, required a different growing regime.
Māori brought with them knowledge of soils. Like all soil scientists, they used observation and experimentation to gather data and develop processes regarding land use.
Evidence of burrow pits in New Zealand Landscape
Modifying Soils To Promote Kūmara Growth
Upon arrival, land was cleared and Māori settlers began to grow kūmara. As the seasons passed, Māori learned more about the local climate and soils. Kūmara grew best in light, sandy soil. If the existing soil was heavy and less desirable, Māori worked to modify it.
They mined gravel and sand (from areas called borrow pits) and added it to the soil. There are several advantages to modifying the soil:
stones warm the soil, extending the growing season
water condenses on the gravel at night
encourage kūmara formation (size and uniformity)
protects leaves from the damp soil
They also added charcoal to retain water and to help warm the soil. The kūmara were planted into mounds (puke) and arranged into rows.
Kūmara from Te Parapara, growing in traditional mounds
Kūmara Gardens in the Waikato
The Waikato area was home to about two thousand hectares of modified soil. Kūmara gardens were located on lands and terraces along the Waikato and Waipā rivers.
Te Parapara Garden in the Hamilton Gardens is an example of the once widespread kūmara gardens. The garden takes its name from the pre-European Māori settlement that occupied the site. The area was once home to the Ngāti Wairere chief, Haanui, and was associated with sacred rituals regarding the harvesting of food.
Kūmara at the gardens harvested with a traditional tool
Oneone – Soils & Their Properties
Oneone is the Māori word for soil. One is a prefix used when naming different soil types. For example, onepunga is a light soil, onerere is a free draining soil and oneparaumu is a dark, friable soil. Sometimes the type of soil became a place name. Onehunga is an alluvial soil or a beach composed of mixed sand and mud. It makes sense that the Auckland suburb bearing this name borders on the Manukau Harbour.
Another prefix to describe soil properties is kere – clay soil. Kerewhenua is a yellow clay and kerematua is a stiff clay.
Visit Te Ara to read Oneone – soils. This story describes the uses of soil and gives examples of soil in Maori traditions.
The NZ Soils website has information about modified soils in the Waikato: Maori and Soils.
Read more about Te Parapara Garden, the only garden of its kind in the world.
Harvested kūmara waiting to be picked up