I have arrived in New Zealand (Aotearoa)! It is a nice change from the Canadian winter…. the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) is vibrant with summer growth.
On my first day in New Zealand I was very lucky to visit the beautiful Hamilton Gardens to see the Te Parapara Garden, a Maori productive garden that allows visitors to see how horticulture was traditionally practiced. The Te Parapara Garden includes reconstructions of the types of structures traditionally built and used by the Maori in their gardens. It was exciting to visit this garden because I will be mostly interacting with Maori archaeology during my time in New Zealand, specifically horticultural sites in use before the arrival of Europeans.
When the ancestors of the Maori came to temperate New Zealand from tropical Polynesia they brought their horticultural practices with them. However, the climate and soils of their new land were different and so the Maori adjusted the way they grew their crops. One technique used by the Maori was soil modification. This involved excavating sand and/or gravel from under the topsoil (creating what are now known as borrow pits) and adding these coarser materials to the topsoil, perhaps to improve moisture and heat retention in the gardens.
Before the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand, and the changes that came as a result of that cultural interaction, the Maori economy would have been a mix of horticulture, gathering and fishing. The crops grown included taro, yam, gourd, ti pore, aute and most importantly kumara (a type of sweet potato). The ceremonies, rituals and rules associated with kumara horticulture highlight the cultural significance of this particular crop.
Kumara was grown in raised rows of small mounds (puke) shaped from the sandy/gravelly modified soil that suited them much better than the natural soils. Unfortunately, the temperate climate of New Zealand does not allow the kumara plants to flower or produce seeds, making it difficult for archaeologists to discover if different cultigens were grown in different regions. To remedy this, when Maori horticultural sites are being excavated soil samples are taken and analysed to identify minuscule remains of the crops grown on that particular site.
Archaeologically, traditional Maori horticultural sites are identified pre-excavation by large indentations in the ground that can be seen from the surface. Today, if you were walking through a farm pasture and came across a large circular or rectangular dip in the ground, chances are this would be the remains of a Maori borrow pit or storage structure. The borrow pits are now the only visible result of the labour intensive practice of soil modification. While the addition of sand and gravel to the soils was an important factor in creating viable growing conditions in many regions of New Zealand, of equal importance was the proper storage of the kumara over the winter. If they were not properly stored not only would this important food source not be available in the winter months but the seed crop would not be there for the spring planting.
Although traditional Maori horticultural sites are generally referred to as gardens, they could range from 2 to 10 acres and thus were much larger than a backyard vegetable garden! It was an impressive and labour intensive feat to modify soils for that amount of land, especially if you consider that the traditional Maori tools were not metal. Historical records tell us that smaller gardens were enclosed by fences and this has been recreated at the Te Parapara Garden in the Hamilton Gardens. Being able to see the structures and growing kumara in the Te Parapara Garden will help me to visualise what the archaeology I uncover represents. Instead of seeing only a pattern of circles in the ground I will now be able to relate the archaeological remains to the hard work and traditional lifestyle of the Maori.
For more detailed information on traditional Maori horticulture and the Te Parapara Garden take a look at these links: