Understanding Soils

TeAo Māori: relationships with soil

About the mana of the soil, and soil health from a kaupapa Māori perspective.

by Garth Harmsworth


Māori have had a long connection and understanding of soil reaching back centuries to Polynesian migration. The knowledge (mātauranga Māori, mōhiotanga, māramatanga, tohungatanga) is ancient, traditional, historic, and contemporary. Soils have provided cultural, spiritual, social, emotional, and economic sustenance to Māori (Asher & Naulls 1987; Harmsworth 2020; Hutchings & Smith 2020). The interconnections arise from whakapapa (ancestral lineage, layering) and start with the time of creation from the separation of the primordial parents, Papatūānuku (the earth mother), Ranginui (the sky father), and the emergence of light and reality (TeAoMarama) as a dwelling place for humans, ecosystems, flora and fauna (Buck 1950; Harmsworth & Awatere 2013).

The stories of interconnection and interdependency often start with the first woman, Hine-ahu-one or Hine-hau-one (the female element), who was formed from the soil (i.e. a clay red earth/red clay – onewhero, at the place of Kurawaka) from which human beings originated. It is also often said that at death humans return to the soil. When Māui (a demi-god) failed to convince Hine-nui-te-pō, goddess of the underworld, to let humans die like the moon (die and return), she told him, ‘Me matemate-a-one’ (let man die and become like soil) (Harmsworth 2020).

taylor mural

A 1962 mural by E. Mervyn Taylor entitled 'First Kumara Planting' once on display in the former DSIR Soil Bureau head office, Taita.

Early Māori explorers who arrived on canoes from Polynesia were often interested in the cultivation qualities of soils in Aotearoa, as in ‘te taro o teora’, meaning sustenance. There are many old Māori proverbs (whakataukī) that contain reference to soil, and the qualities and characteristics of soil (Harmsworth 2020; Roskruge 2020).


Māori names, describing soils, land – whenua

Over 100 traditional indigenous Māori names exist for soil; and most parts of the landscape are described in detail (Best 1925 Harmsworth & Roskruge 2014a,b; Roskruge 2020; Proctor & Harmsworth 2020), and with many descriptors (e.g. for degrees of wetness, stoniness, texture, colour).

Table 1. Selected examples of Māori soil names

Māori soil names and English description 

Māori soil names and English description 

Oneone – general name for soil  

One- – sand 

One hunga – sea sand, sandy beach, sometimes mixed with mud 

One-pārakiwai – silt  

Parahua – silt 

Paru, paruparu – mud, dark mud  

Kere was used as a prefix for some types of clay, including keretū, onekeretū, kerematua, kerewhenua  

Kōtore, pākeho – white clay 

Keretū – heavy clay 

Kere whenua – yellow clay 

Kenepuru – sandy silt 

Uku – unctuous clay, white or bluish clay 

Uku whenua – plastic clay (old traditional name) 

Ūkui – wash, wipe away  

One-matua – typically loam 

Oneware, onemata – dark fertile soil 

One paraumu – very dark fertile soil, friable 

Oneware – greasy soil  

Onetakataka – a friable soil 

Onewawata – a lumpy soil 

Pūngorungoru – (soft spongy) A light, loose soil 


Rei – Peat 

Onekopuru – An organic soil found in wet situations 

Pungapunga (also purupuru) – pumice soils 

Pungarehu – ashes 

Onekōkopu – Gravel or very gravelly soil 

Tiapu, onetaipu – Fertile lands – especially sandy alluvial soils 


Māori agriculture

Māori modified soils or Māori plaggen soils are extensive throughout Aotearoa-New Zealand (Best 1925; Singleton 1988; Harmsworth & Roskruge 2014a,b). Māori brought many warm tropical climate crops (e.g. taro, uwhi or yam, hue-gourde) to Aotearoa, and needed to manage the soils in the more temperate, colder climate in order for crops to grow well. Evidence of soil modification includes features such as re-deposited mixtures of sand and gravel; stones; shell fragments; middens; natural fertilisers, seaweeds, wood/ash and charcoal from fires; garden walls, terraces, and mounds; relative levels of organic matter and effects from mulching or burning; garden implements such as the wooden kō used for digging, garden pits; and structures for storage. In the Waikato region alone, Māori modified about 2,000 hectares of soil for growing crops, of which kūmara was the most important, with kūmara gardens located near rivers and on river terraces (Singleton 1988).

maori gravel land and pits

Historic image of 'Māori gravel land and pits'. Source: Rigg & Bruce (1923) The Maori gravel soil of Waimea West, Nelson, New Zealand. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 32(126): 85-93.

Collective evidence provides insight into the past activities of indigenous Māori and indicates a progressive and developmental move towards gardening and horticultural practice, signalling an advancement in kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and maara kai (gardening). We know that gardening and cropping by Māori were significant around Māori communities and settlements (e.g.papakainga, marae, pā, maara kai, mahinga kai) in the 1700s and 1800s. Indeed, there is common belief among Māori that gardening practice and horticulture started when Māori arrived in Aotearoa and some evidence points to local gardens from the 1500s. Small garden plots are evidenced by large-scale modification of soils in many areas throughout Aotearoa-New Zealand.

Building on this early knowledge, there has been re-emergence and strengthening of Māori knowledge and Māori values to underpin soil and food management (Hutchings et al. 2018; Hutchings & Smith 2020), showing the significance of soils as a taonga (treasured resource) particularly at the local and community level, with demonstrated links to soil security, food production, healthy foods, and human well-being (Hutchings et al. 2018; Hutchings & Smith 2020; Harmsworth 2020, Stronge et al. 2020).



Aotearoa-New Zealand has had a long, rich history in understanding and valuing its soils, and it is important to recognise the depth and richness of Māori knowledge/TeAo Māori that existed before colonisation and modern science. We hope this short discussion piece will generate some interest among the soil science family in understanding Māori–soil relationships, and the role these relationships could play in safeguarding and managing our precious soils for the future.


Asher G, Naulls D 1987. Māori land. Planning paper No. 29. Wellington: NZ Planning Council.  

Best E 1925 (reprinted 1976). Māori agriculture: the cultivated food plants of the natives of New Zealand: with some account of native methods of agriculture, its ritual and origin myths. Dominion Museum Bulletin No. 9. Wellington: AR Shearer, Government Printer. 315 p.  

Buck P (TeRangiHiroa) 1950. The coming of the Māori. 2nd edn. Wellington: Māori Purposes Fund Board/ Whitcombe & Tombs. 551 p. 

Harmsworth GR 2020. Oneoneora, tangataora: soils and Māori health and wellbeing, In: Hutchings J, Smith J eds Te mahi oneonehuaparakore: a Māori soil sovereignty and wellbeing handbook. Christchurch: Free Range Press. Pp. 28–43. 

Harmsworth GR, Awatere S 2013. Indigenous Māori knowledge and perspectives of ecosystems. In: Dymond JR ed. Ecosystem services in New Zealand – conditions and trends. Lincoln: Manaaki Whenua Press. Pp. 274–286. 

Harmsworth G, Roskruge N 2014a. Indigenous Māori values, perspectives and knowledge of soils in Aotearoa-New Zealand: A: Chapter 9 – Beliefs, and concepts of soils, the environment and land. In: Churchman GJ, Landa ER eds The soil underfoot: infinite possibilities for a finite resource. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. Pp. 111–126. 

Harmsworth GR, Roskruge N 2014b. Indigenous Māori values, perspectives and knowledge of soils in Aotearoa-New Zealand: B. Chapter 20 – Māori Use and Knowledge of Soils over Time. In Churchman GJ, Landa ER eds The soil underfoot: infinite possibilities for a finite resource. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. Pp. 257–268. 

Hutchings J, Smith J, Harmsworth G 2018. Elevating the mana of soil through the huaparakore framework. MAI Journal 7(1): 92–102. DOI: 10.20507/MAIJournal.2018.7.1.

Hutchings J, Smith J 2020. Te mahi oneonehuaparakore: A Māori soil sovereignty and wellbeing handbook. Christchurch: Free Range Press. 187 p.

Procter J, Harmsworth G 2020. He tatai whenua: towards developing a Māori landscape classification framework. In: Diane Menzies, Editor 2020. Kia whakanuiate whenua: people, place, landscape. Auckland: Publication of the Landscape Foundation. Pp. 257–268.  

Roskruge N 2020. Nākukoeiwhāngai (It was I that brought you up). In: Hutchings J, Smith J eds 2020. Te mahi oneonehuaparakore: A Māori soil sovereignty and wellbeing handbook. Christchurch: Free Range Press. Pp. 61–74. 

Singleton PL 1988. Cultivation and soil modification by the early Māori in the Waikato. New Zealand Soil News 36: 49–57. 

Stronge D, Stevenson B, Harmsworth G, Kannemeyer R 2020. A well-being approach to soil health – insights from Aotearoa New Zealand. Journal of Sustainability 12: 7719. doi:10.3390/su12187719.


More information

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Visit our programme website on 'Soil health and resilience: oneone ora, tangata ora' representing a coming together of Māori philosophical, epistemological and kaupapa Māori based knowledge and perspectives with those of science

Check out our basic spatial visualisation package for interested landowners, community groups, and iwi to start visualising their current conservation efforts and map out where they can focus future endeavours to achieve conservation goals:

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