Prehistoric Maori Rock Art - A Window into Early New Zealand Occupation

The South Island's Ancient Maori Rock Art

In the prehistoric age, nomadic Maori hunters created New Zealand’s earliest surviving artwork - This Maori Rock Art opens a rare window to our distant past.

Prehistoric Maori Rock Art - A Window into Early New Zealand Occupation

Prehistoric New Zealand

In the prehistoric age of early human occupation, nomadic Maori hunters created New Zealand’s earliest surviving artworks in caves and shelters as long ago as the fifteenth century or earlier, The Maori Rock Art is admired by archaeologists and historians alike, these windows on the past show a strength and elegance of design but the question of origin and significance are still a mystery.

Located in the South Island

With few exceptions, these ancient sites are found in New Zealand's South Island, particularly in the limestone areas of South Canterbury and North Otago - It's here that you'll find some of our oldest signs of our human occupation. Rock art is the oldest surviving artistic medium with drawings starting to appear with the first wave of people into the South Island between 600 and 1000 years ago. This is now known as the ‘Moa Hunter’ period, a time when almost all of the country was heavily forested and especially around where the rock drawings are now found. These forested areas harbored abundant food supplies including a number of species of the now extinct large Moa.

Only drawing of a bat in New Zealand rock art

Nomadic Existence

The Hunters lived a nomadic or 'hunter-gatherer' existence, unlike their village dwelling descendants, and lead regular expeditions into the interior of the South Island taking with them basic stone tools and a certain amount of food. Sheltering under rock overhangs, mostly of limestone, building fires and eating the food they had brought as well as cooking what they had gathered. It was during these stay-over’s that they drew, initially using charcoal from their fires and then red ochre or hematite (Iron Oxide) - This latter pigment does not occur naturally in most rock art areas and must have been brought in deliberately Although it is impossible to know their intent, it is thought the early motive to draw was purely functional, to make ‘‘spatial markers'' or in other words, road signs. People walking the land, looking for food and finding food create a story in images for a specific area to help them remember. It is thought the markers were gradually elaborated on to depict local mythology and perhaps the ancestry of the sites visitors.

Weka Pass mythical creatures

What did the art depict?

Birds and fish are commonly seen on the walls (New Zealand only has one Native mammal, a small bat) with humans being the most prevalent of all the recognizable objects. Some forms are not readily identifiable and some represent mythical monsters or Maori legend such as the Taniwha or distant memories of creatures from another land. Rarely are the drawings realistic, mostly the shapes are stylized sometimes to such a degree that accurate identification can become impossible or even questionable – but this is the true nature of the process art is it not?

Maori Rock Art Stamps

Then it stopped...

Then all of a sudden between 700 and 400 years ago, most of the east coast forests were destroyed in a series of huge, man made fires. The exact reason is heavily debated and will never be known. What is known is that the fires resulted in a razing of the habitat of many of the birds. A number of species including all the Moas became extinct. The areas formerly favored for hunting and where many of the rock shelters occur, became barren and inhospitable. There was no longer any reason to visit those areas and they were largely abandoned for many centuries, along with the practice of rock art. 

Worth a Visit

The smooth walls of limestone outcrops in South Canterbury and North Otago provided an ideal canvas for early Māori and although over 500 years old, many of the rock drawings have survived the elements and can be clearly seen.  Found at more than 550 sites and with a high probability that more lie hidden waiting to be found, more than 95 per cent of the art is located on private land and thus are rarely visited.

Unfortunately the natural “exfoliation” of the limestone has ment many of the drawings are in an advanced state of degradation.  Although they may not be able to boast the longevity of the Australian Aboriginals rock drawing, which dates back more than 50,000 years, the Maori rock art is no less significant and provides a fascinating record of early Maori occupation and displays a continuum that extends from moa-hunting to European contact.    

The drawings all have a perceivable cultural similarity and show a wide range of artistic ability ranging from doodles to well executed, artistically balanced figures.    

The difference between Maori rock drawings and the better-known wood carvings is not just a matter of a different medium. They were done many centuries before most of the known woodcarvings in a very different cultural period.

Rock Art Tour South Canterbury

Get into the field with a local guide

With 550-recorded sites, 250 of those within an hour of Timaru, it is perfect for those traveling from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo, Mt Cook or Queenstown to stop for a guided tour. 

If you want to get into the field and see some of the more significant examples of Maori rock art, contact us and we can arrange a knowledgeable local Maori whom will not only explain the mystery of the drawings but also give you an insight into the local tribal stories and traditions. Let First Light Travel create your holiday of a lifetime.     


Brent Narbey
Brent Narbey
: 15 Jan 2013 (Last updated: 8 Mar 2022)

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