Te maori tangata whenua
 the ordinary people of the land

Some forty millennia before now the ancestors of the Polynesians had reached the Malay Peninsula in their migration from the African continent. Before them lay a vast ocean, yet by about three thousand years ago they had reached the Marquesas archipelago (Hawai iki), almost half the planet's girth away. Within another millennium they had populated most of the island groups in  the wider region.. The final period of expansion culminated in the settlement of the the islands of New Zealand (Ao te aroa) about a thousand years  ago.

At a thousand miles in length, the largest of the fair isles of Oceania was a pristine remnant of the ancient continent of Gondwana.  For all of the 70 to 80 million years of separation no animal inhabited the primeval forests that ranged from the coasts to the alpine foot hills.  Many of the birds, having no predators, became flightless, some becoming the largest birds ever known to have existed. The most archaic descendant of the dinosaurs, the Tuatara, still dwell in the forests.


The first Polynesian inhabitants of the island were known as the Moriori by the Waitaha tribe who, it is said,  migrated  in a canoe named Arawa from Hawai iki in the 14th century.  The Waitaha subsequently fell prey to the Ngati Mamoe tribe from the large island to the North. Around 1650 they in turn succumbed to another northern tribe; the Ngai Tahu. The Ngai Tahu are now the fourth largest tribe in New Zealand with 30,000 tribal members.

Known as Aikawa (Taiaroa Map, 1879-80), the place below the forested mountain was not used for sustained habitation.  They would come to snare birds for food and decorative feathers. Until the 17th century, it was was also a place of refuge in times of tribal warfare.

The principal thoroughfare of Blandswood village is Lookout Road.   It is believed that prior to the coming of the European, the road may have been a track to a vantage point from where could be seen the fires of the settlements near the coast.  Visible some 154 kilometres (96 miles) to the North lay the principal stronghold (Pa) of the Ngai Tahu tribe at Kaiapohiai (Kaiapoi).   To the East and South were the villages (kaika) at Rakitata (Rangitata), Te Umukaha (Temuka) and  Arowhenua.  Near Te Umukaha  was the Waiteruati Pa. Closer still was the village of Opuaha on the Geraldine river. From the lookout a sentry would have been able to observe the progress of travellers between these settlements; a significant advantage in times of war.

It is generally supposed that early tribes explored the river that skirts the mountain to its source.  Near there they found a pass to the West coast, where they could barter for the treasured Jade after which the island was named.

The first inhabitants called their land  "The island of the waters of Jade"  (Te wai pounamu).  Europeans have known it as New Leinster and then by the more prosaic names of Middle Island and subsequently  South Island.

Hoani Korehe Kahu, chief of the Arowhenua Kainga, who welcomed the first European settlers to the area is pictured to the right. His wife Tiriata was born about 1845, the daughter of Te Maiharoa. Their daughter, Wikitoria married Pita Paipeta.


Until the 19th century the Maori practised a stone age tribal culture with a strong sense of social structure and hierarchy. War like, yet chivalrous hunters and gatherers, they lived in small villages, (usually close to fishing rivers) where they grew vegetables, retreating to a stronghold (Pa) in times of strife.

The Maori war party above was photographed at Kaipara in 1863 by Daniel Manders Beere (1822 - 1909), it is now in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

The consumption of human flesh, usually attended with ritual significance, remained a cultural tradition within Polynesian civilisation until the period of European colonisation.  The eating of a baby by an ailing tribal elder or chieftain saw it's final manifestation at Rawene on the North island in 1947 (the diner was committed to a psychiatric institution).

For the entrepreneurial native, the ancient practice of drying the elaborately tattooed heads of significant individuals turned into an export industry with the arrival of Europeans in the early 19th century. Unable to keep up with the demand, the head of a slave would be tattooed, which would then removed and antiqued with the juice of the Fuschia berry (Konini). The proceeds could then be used to obtain European weapons, useful in acquiring more victims and territory.


It is said that to the forest came remnants of the Ngati Mamoe  tribe.  They were in retreat from battle with the Ngai Tahu and sought refuge.   But their chief was foully murdered there by a war party that had preceded them.  His relatives buried him where he fell at the foot of a huge tree.   In the early period of European settlement, two farm workers found a human skeleton in the forest.  They buried it reverently in a strong box.

How the mountain came to be named

In ancient times Tarahaoa, Chief of Otago in the South, in council with the tribal elders, decided to travel North by sea.  Leading the fleet was Arai te uru, the most famous and magnificently carved of all the canoes of the island of Te Wai Pounamu.  It carried the chief and his wife; Hua te kerekere.

Two evenings later, a grey mist swept in from the east.  The canoes closed together in double line ahead for fear of being separated from each other.  But the lookout lost his bearings and a sudden storm overtook them in the night, so noisy that it drowned the sound of waves dashing on rocks.  The gale was too strong and the canoes were smashed to match wood.  We now call that place "Shag Point."

Tarahaoa and Hua te kerekere were among the survivors who reached land.  They buried the bodies that washed ashore, and the depleted tribe wandered overland northward.  They lived the remainder of their lives where they could always see the westering sun go down behind the high skyline.  The constant plea of the Chief and his wife to their gods was that, at their death, they should be changed into mountains.   The gods were kind, and the mountains now known as Big Mt. Peel and Little Mt. Peel are really Tarahaoa and Hua te kerekere.  They stand sentinel at the mouth of the Rangitata river gorge, inseparably linked with each other.

In their lifetime they had a son and a daughter; Kin kin katata and Aro aro kaeha.  In that time, to keep the bloodline pure in noble families, custom willed that a brother and sister might marry.  So these two were wed, and they had four children.  So strong is Maori family tie that they could not bear to leave their parents' side. At their plea, the gods changed them, at their death, into two giant trees.  These trees, so it is told, stand in the secret depths of the rain forest.

The four children of the marriage played in the bush. They made houses in the rotting trunks, they swung across valleys on supplejacks, they hung the flowers of the Rata tree in their hair, and generally enjoyed their childhood.   As they grew older, they learned the stories of their ancestors, and they felt that they too, in death, could never be separated from them.  So their gods, who revered the bond of family life, and knowing their deep desire, turned them also into mountains close at hand.  Their names we call the Four Peaks, but we know that two of them are really Whaka tamiro and Hine kuha.  The names of the other two have not survived antiquity.

The legends are adapted from Tarahaoa: history, story and legend of Peel Forest by  Phyllis Kerr (1907-1993) published at Christchurch by the Peel Forest Park Board in 1972.

Recommended reading

Maori Resources on the Internet

Maori place names of Canterbury : including 1000 hitherto unpublished names collected from Maori sources
Herries Beattie, 1881-1972. Dunedin, N.Z., Printed by the Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspapers Co., 194

Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori
Beattie, H. (Herries), 1881-1972. (Edited by Atholl Anderson) Dunedin 1994

Te Wai Pounamu : the greenstone island : a history of the southern Maori during the European colonisation of New Zealand
Evison, Harry Charles, 1924-  . Wellington, N.Z. Published by Aoraki Press in association with the Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board & Te Runanganui o Tahu, 1993.

Lore and history of the South Island Maori
Taylor, William Anderson, 1882-1952.Christchurch, N.Z. Bascands, [1952].

The picture at the top of this page has been adapted from a photograph of two unidentified Maori women. It was taken at Thames in about 1894 by Arthur J. Iles (1870-1943) and is now in a private collection.

The Tattooed head depicted further down the page is that of Tawhiao, King of the Maoris. It was taken by Elizabeth Pullman in 1882 and is now in the Auckland Museum collection.