Pounamu: Treasure from the first quest to Middle Earth

When my dad was a kid he found these toki (adzes) in a paddock on his family’s farm in Western Southland. They are Maori tools, made out of Greenstone/Pounamu, a relic of pre-European settlement in the South Island. Image

Maori came down from the North Island to collect Greenstone for tool and jewellery making. The greenstone from the South Island was so important to them that they named the island after it – Te Wai Pounamu – Waters of Greenstone.

Expeditions for Pounamu involved traversing high mountain passes, walking hundreds of kilometres, and carrying huge amounts of heavy stone. They were really the first people to go on a quest for treasure through Middle Earth, and they didn’t have ponies or wizards to help them!

The Routeburn Track – one of New Zealand’s famous ‘Great Walks’, hiked by thousands of people each year – was originally formed as a Pounamu route from the West Coast to the much more inhabitable East.


The Humboldt Mountains, terrain traversed by Maori on Pounamu expeditions. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Pounamu was formed under intense heat pressure, 10km under the Southern Alps. The hot fluids and pressure caused a chemical reaction between greywacke (sedimentary rock) and dunite (volcanic rock), which produced narrow bands of pounamu. The uplifting forces that pushed up the Southern Alps also brought Pounamu to the surface. Erosion from water and glaciers has broken away the much softer surrounding rock to expose chunks of Pounamu. These rocks are rarer than gold, and much harder to spot. To the untrained eye, uncut and unpolished Pounamu looks just like any other rock.

In 1997, parliament declared all Pounamu in its natural form was now the property of the South Island Maori tribe, Ngai Tahu. Since then, they haven’t mined it, which means it’s pretty hard to get your hands on these days. The demand for it far outstrips supply, which has made it far more valuable than Canadian and Chinese Jade, meaning a lot of tourist souvenirs aren’t actually made from New Zealand Pounamu at all.

Traditionally, Pounamu was used for tools, as a symbol of chieftainship and also as a peacemaking agreement between tribes. Jewellery included Hei Tiki (made famous in the 90s, when Air New Zealand issued passengers Hei Tiki made out of plastic – at the time a cultural faux pas, but now considered a proud, kitsch symbol of Kiwiana).


A Pounamu Hei Tiki. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The origins of Hei Tiki aren’t really clear, but some say it is in the form of the first man, Tiki. Others say it is female or sexless. There have been a few instances where previously infertile women have given birth after being given Hei Tiki.

Today Pounamu is valued as a symbol of national identity by all New Zealanders, often worn as a pendant, like these ones of mine:Image

Kiwis around the world can be spotted wearing Pounamu, a small token to remind us of home.



The Maori version of events from the the Ngati Waewae iwi (tribe):

One day, the taniwha (supernatural being) Poutini comes to Tuhua (Mayor Island) in the Bay of Plenty. There, he sees a woman bathing – the beautiful Waitaiki. Enchanted, Poutini kidnaps her and takes her south. At various points along the way, he lights a fire to keep her warm.

When Waitaiki’s husband, Tamaahua, discovers she is missing, he pursues Poutini and Waitaiki. He is aided by a magic tekateka (dart) that shows him the way.

Wherever Poutini has lit a fire, Tamaahua finds a valuable source of stone. The journey takes him past the Arahura River on the South Island’s  West Coast as far as Piopiotahi (Milford Sound)

Finally Tamaahua retraces his journey back to the Arahura River. There, he discovers Waitaiki turned into smooth pounamu in the riverbed.

Poutini, sensing Tamaaha close behind, has transformed Waitaiki into his own essence. He has then slipped down the river and out to sea.