Maori Soil Science

Evidence of burrow pits in New Zealand Landscape


Burrow pits


Kumara from Te Parapara, growing in traditional mounds.


Kumara growing traditionally


Kumara at the gardens harvested with a traditional tool.



Harvested kumara waiting to be picked up.




When Maori 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 kumara, required a different growing regime.

Maori brought with them knowledge of soils. Like all soil scientists, they used observation and experimentation to gather data and develop processes regarding land use.


Modifying Soils To Promote Kumara Growth

Upon arrival, land was cleared and Maori settlers began to grow kumara. As the seasons passed, Maori learned more about the local climate and soils. Kumara grew best in light, sandy soil. If the existing soil was heavy and less desirable, Maori 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
  • better drainage
  • water condenses on the gravel at night
  • encourage kumara formation (size and uniformity)
  • protects leaves from the damp soil

They also added charcoal to retain water and to help warm the soil. The kumara were planted into mounds (puke) and arranged into rows.


Kumara Gardens In The Waikato

The Waikato area was home to about two thousand hectares of modified soil. Kumara gardens were located on lands and terraces along the Waikato and Waipa rivers.

Te Parapara Garden in the Hamilton Gardens is an example of the once widespread kumara gardens. the garden takes its name from the pre-European Maori settlement that occupied the site. The area was once home to the Ngati Wairere chief, Haanui, and was associated with sacred rituals regarding the harvesting of food.


Oneone – Soils And Their Properties

Oneone is the Maori 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.


Digging Deeper

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.