When it comes to jade, China is probably the first place you think of. The beautiful green stone has been revered there for thousands of years and is still culturally significant. But did you know that there’s another country whose culture places tremendous significance on jade? The Maori people of New Zealand have a long history with jade, and today we will explore it.
What Is Pounamu?
The Maori word pounamu refers to a variety of different colored hard, durable stones that fall into two species – nephrite jade and translucent bowenite, a variety of serpentine.
Bowenite was named after George T. Bowen, who first analyzed it in 1822. It tends to be dark green to light olive green, even slightly yellow. The Maori people used it to craft weapons, tools, and jewelry.
The other material classified as pounamu is nephrite jade.
Jade has two varieties – the more precious jadeite jade and the nephrite jade.
Where Is Pounamu Found?
These pounamu stones are generally found only on South Island in four main areas: the West Coast, the Fjordland, Western Southland, and the Nelson district.
Usually, pounamu is found in rivers and on beaches as alluvial deposits after being eroded from their host material.
Pounamu comes from ophiolites which are sections of oceanic crust and upper mantle that have been uplifted and exposed above sea level.
New Zealand Jade
Pounamu is a term that refers to a variety of stones. These varieties are classified based on color and appearance, matching their typically green shade with another green found in nature, like a certain plant’s leaves or the scales of a fish.
For example, the term “New Zealand jade” is a bit of a misnomer because not all pounamu are jade. Some of it is bowenite.
Different Types Of Pounamu
Remember, greenstone is also a generic term used to refer to greenstones sourced from other countries and often sold in gift shops. Pounamu, by definition, is only from New Zealand. Here are the varieties:
Inanga pounamu is named after a common freshwater whitebait fish. It can be pearly white to grayish green and is translucent to opaque.
This variety is most prized for making ornaments in mere, which are traditional Maori weapons. It’s a broad-bladed one-handed weapon and was a symbol of chieftainship.
Kahurangi pounamu is a vivid light green with no visible spots or flaws and is highly translucent. Its name is a Maori word for a person of high rank and is the rarest of all the varieties of pounamu.
It was the preferred variety of pounamu for making ceremonial adzes, which is a wood-cutting tool, like an axe but with a blade perpendicular to the handle. These special adzes were owned by Maori chiefs.
Next is Kawakawa pounamu. This variety is dark green with flecks and inclusions. It’s named after the kawakawa tree. It’s a small tree with broadly rounded, deep green waxy-looking leaves. Its roots are used to make a medicinal drink with sedative, anesthetic, and some psychoactive properties.
This variety of pounamu is the most common and is most used for jewelry.
The rarest kind of kawakawa is called totoweka and has small red flecks. Its name means weka blood, a small flightless bird endemic to New Zealand.
Kokopu pounamu is olive green in color and is speckled with dark spots. The term kokopu is used to refer to three different species of fish commonly found in the rivers, lakes, and swamps of New Zealand, to which they are also endemic. They have coloration similar to their pranamun namesake.
Tangiwai pounamu is translucent like glass and can be a variety of colors. It looks like a drop of water when viewed in the light. Its name means the tears that come from great sorrow and is inspired by a Maori tale of a lamenting woman whose tears turn to stone.
Flower Or Picture Jade
Lastly, we have flower or picture jade. It’s a panorama with cream, yellow, or brown inclusions caused by oxidation and weathering of the surface of the stone. Cracks in the stone allow for other impurities to seep in, creating more complex pictures to occur on the stone.
With all these varieties, it’s clear that this stone is of great significance in Maori culture.
What Is Pounamu Used For?
Pounamu is considered a taonga, a treasure. It was a very important trade commodity for the tribes that called South Island home, as they could trade it with northern tribes.
Pounamu was an important material for tools and weapons, even after metals were introduced. Chisels, knives, scrapers, adzes, hammerstones, drill points, and fish hooks were all made from pounamu. The smaller tools were often worn as personal ornamentation and the practicality of having your tool close at hand.
What Is Hei Tiki?
When these tools were no longer useful and were at the end of their life, they were reworked into hei tiki. These were pendants depicting stylized human figures and were worn as jewelry.
These treasures were believed to increase in spiritual power from generation to generation, absorbing the mana from the previous owners. The more generations, the more precious, and sometimes the tonga would be named after a particular owner to memorialize their position or authority.
Pounamu Taonga Today
Sometimes, these pounamu taonga were used as gifts to seal and bind agreements, a practice still observed today.
In 2011, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key presented President Obama with a beautifully hand-carved traditional Maori hand weapon. The 2016 movie Moana centers around returning the stolen heart of the goddess Te Fiti, which is a pendant made of pounamu, a thoughtful depiction of a piece of Maori culture.
Nowadays, there are designated areas on the west coast of South Island where you can go prospecting recreationally, an activity known as fossicking.