June 4, 2023

Aotearoa’s original art galleries: Māori rock art up to 1000 years old known to few Kiwis – but that could soon change

"[You'll see] all sorts of things Māori would have been seeing before Europeans arrived."

They’ve been called Aotearoa’s original art galleries – they’re paintings on limestone caves that are up to 1000 years old. But few Kiwis even know about them. 

Deep in a leafy green gully, half an hour out of Timaru, you’ll find a network of limestone caves. And if you hold your head the right way, some pictures will emerge.

Te Ana team leader Rachel Solomon told The Project “sometimes you’ve got to get your eye in” to see the display. 

“Start to look for the black pigment or red pigment. They start to appear out of the limestone canvas.”

There are 760 Māori rock art sites in the South Island alone, covered in artworks painted between 500 and 1000 years ago.

“The meaning of rock art has been lost over time but the kind of things we can see are kuri, taniwha, insects, birds, all sorts of things Māori would have been seeing before Europeans arrived.”

The images include extinct birds like the moa and the pouakai or Haast eagle, and in one cave, there’s the pièce de résistance – an extremely rare painting of a pregnant taniwha.

“Some New Zealanders will know what this image is, it was made famous by a stamp. It’s the famous Opihi taniwha, the most precious site for Ngāi Tahu whānui,” Solomon said. 

“There are a couple of theories around this site. One is this is the creation story with Papatūānuku, mother nature, who is hapū, evident by [her] swollen belly and hands poking out her belly. She’s connected to Raki or Rangi, the sky father.

“Rock art was used for spiritual ceremonies, or, ‘This is where we’re finding weka or plants or birds, watch out, here’s where the eagle is, beware he doesn’t swoop on you’. And also people just leaving their mark along the way.”

The land surrounding the caves is in the middle of a major restoration programme. The aim is to transform farmland into a forest of nearly 50,000 native trees and bring back skinks, butterflies, moths and eels. 

Te Ana restoration manager Phil Brownie told The Project he used to explore the area when he was younger.

“So to be back here 50 years later is a very privileged opportunity, so one can’t ask for a better job really.”

Solomon added: “My dad grew up nearby and never knew about these places. When he came down he was amazed, couldn’t believe what he was seeing, very emotional.”

Most Kiwis are unaware of rock art in Aotearoa, so that’s part of Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust’s vision to bring them back into the light. 

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