Pounamu (or “greenstone” in New Zealand English) are several types of hard and durable stone found in southern New Zealand. They are highly valued by the Māori, and hardstone carvings made from pounamu play an important role in Māori culture. Geologically, pounamu are usually nephrite jade, bowenite, or serpentinite, but the Māori classify pounamu by colour and appearance.
The main classifications are kawakawa, kahurangi, īnanga, and tangiwai. The first three are nephrite jade, while tangiwai is a form of bowenite.
- Īnanga pounamu takes its name from a native freshwater fish (Galaxias maculatus) and is pearly-white or grey-green in colour and varies from translucent to opaque.
- Kahurangi pounamu is highly translucent and has a vivid shade of green. It is named after the clearness of the sky and is the rarest variety of pounamu.
- Kawakawa pounamu comes in many shades, often with flecks or inclusions, and is named after the leaves of the native kawakawa tree (Macropiper excelsum). It is the most common variety of pounamu.
- Tangiwai pounamu is clear like glass but in a wide range of shades. The name comes from the word for the tears that come from great sorrow.
In modern usage pounamu almost always refers to nephrite jade. Pounamu is generally found in rivers in specific parts of the South Island as nondescript boulders and stones. These are difficult to identify as pounamu without cutting them open.
Significance to Māori
Pounamu plays a very important role in Māori culture. It is considered a taonga (treasure) and therefore protected under the Treaty of Waitangi. Pounamu taonga increase in mana (prestige) as they pass from one generation to another.
The most prized taonga are those with known histories going back many generations. These are believed to have their own mana and were often given as gifts to seal important agreements.
Pounamu taonga include
- toki (adzes)
- whao (chisels)
- whao whakakōka (gouges)
- ripi pounamu (knives)
- hammer stones
- and drill points
- matau (fishing hooks) and lures
- spear points
- and kākā poria (leg rings for fastening captive birds)
- mere (short handled clubs)
- pendants (hei-tiki, hei matau and pekapeka)
- ear pendants (kuru and kapeu)
- cloak pins.
Functional pounamu tools were widely worn for both practical and ornamental reasons, and continued to be worn as purely ornamental pendants (hei kakī) even after they were no longer used as tools.
Pounamu is found only in the South Island of New Zealand, known in Māori as Te Wai Pounamu (“The Greenstone Water”) or Te Wahi Pounamu (“The Place of Greenstone”). In 1997 the Crown handed back the ownership of all naturally occurring pounamu to the South Island iwi Ngāi Tahu, as part of the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement.
Geological formation and location
Pounamu is found on the West Coast, Fiordland and western Southland. It is typically recovered from rivers and beaches where it has been transported to after being eroded from the mountains. However, pounamu has also been quarried by Māori from the mountains, even above the snow line. The group of rocks where pounamu comes from are called ophiolites. Ophiolites are slices of the deep ocean crust and part of the mantle. When these deep mantle rocks (serpentinite) and crustal rock (mafic igneous rocks) are heated up (metamorphosed) together, pounamu can be formed at their contact.
Pounamu has been formed in New Zealand in three main locations. The Dun Mountain Ophiolite Belt has been metamorphosed in western Southland and pounamu from this belt is found along the eastern and northern edge of Fiordland. The Anita Bay Dunite near Milford Sound is a small but highly prized source of pounamu. In the Southern Alps, the Pounamu Ultramafic Belt in the Haast Schist occurs as isolated pods which are eroded and found on West Coast rivers and beaches.
Jewellery and other decorative items made from gold and pounamu were particularly fashionable in New Zealand in the Victorian and Edwardian years in the late 19th and early 20th century. It continues to be popular among New Zealanders and is often presented as gifts to visitors and to New Zealanders moving overseas.
Fossicking for Pounamu is a cultural activity in New Zealand and allowed only on designated beaches of the West Coast of the South Island (Te Tai o Poutini) and is limited to what can be carried unaided; fossicking elsewhere is illegal. In 2009 David Anthony Saxton and his son Morgan David Saxton were sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment for stealing greenstone, with a helicopter, from the southern West Coast.
Viggo Mortensen, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, took to wearing a hei matau around his neck. Michael Hurst of the television programme Hercules was given a large and heavy pounamu manaia pendant necklace which he wore on the programme. During a particularly energetic action scene the pendant bumped his teeth. The producers felt the ornament suited the nature of the programme yet considered it a safety risk, and had it replaced with a latex replica.
In the 2016 animated movie Moana, Te Fiti’s heart was a pounamu stone.