Kaitiakitanga and the ecodynamics of early Māori horticulture

Investigating how Māori drew on the knowledge of the founding Polynesian ancestors and developed unique perspectives and practices in response to the Ahuahu Great Mercury Island landscape.

The need and impact

The current environmental crisis demands a better understanding of human relationships with the environment. While the overuse of resources by humans is a common pattern throughout history and today, there is limited understanding of indigenous land use management practises outside indigenous communities.

These practices emerge from long-term relationships between people and place. In Aotearoa, the original Polynesian inhabitants arrived in the 13th century with a set of commensal plants and animals and a view of the natural world adapted to small, tropical and sub-tropical islands. Guided by foundational Polynesian principles, Māori learned to live in Aotearoa’s fundamentally different environment. They developed unique kaitiakitanga (values, principles, and practices of guardianship) and tikanga (customary environmental practices).

Current models of early Māori settlement stress environmental impact and resource overexploitation. We propose to investigate how Māori drew on the knowledge of their Polynesian ancestors and developed unique perspectives and practices in response to their intimate experiences in and interactions with Aotearoa’s North Island landscape.

We will study these processes on Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island). Palaeo-environmental and archaeological data will be integrated with social-ecological system modelling and data of Māori tikanga and kaitiakitanga. This transdisciplinary research addresses many of the recently identified major deficiencies of archaeology by investigating complex human-environment interactions and the emergence of organizational strategies associated with societal transformation and resilience.

The proposed research aims to better understand the long-term dynamics of complex human-environment interactions through the lens of Aotearoa’s first people. This research has special significance for Ngāti Hei, the tangata whenua of Ahuahu, and Te Arawa, Tainui, Horouta and Paikea waka who have traditional links to the island.

Our contributions to the origins and development of Māori kaitiakitanga and tikanga elucidates how Aotearoa kaitiakitanga might further develop in the changing world in which we now find ourselves, where anthropogenic activities are leading to critical environmental degradation.

The approach

Ecosystems were once considered self-regulating, equilibrium-seeking entities effectively forming a stable backdrop for functional group-level societal adaptations. We now realize that dynamic ecosystems are extremely complex and are shaped by historically contingent and random processes.

A focus on these ecodynamic processes recognises the importance of agents and the co-evolution of social and natural subsystems through mutual interaction and bi-directional influences. Our interests lie in the processes of horticultural niche construction and environmental engineering, where people’s actions resulted in positive and negative, intentional and unintentional, environmental consequences. Collecting archaeological, palaeoecological, and sedimentary data related to horticultural niche construction, we then build on our previous work on Ahuahu where we have begun to document environmental change and a range of gardening activities.

A further objective is to define hypotheses based on Māori tikanga and kaitiakitanga. We will determine particular archaeological signatures of historically known practices and trace them back in time while acknowledging that meanings are contextual, contingent and inherently transformable. Developing from Wehi et al.’s methodology, and co-developed with iwi, we conduct a quantitative and qualitative linguistic analysis of whakataukī, ancestral sayings, to gain insights into historical Māori ecological understandings.

The final objective of our proposed research is to develop sets of social-ecological system models that explicitly conceptualise linkages between human and environmental system components, and their effects on overall system behaviour. The models will include alternative analytical units and parameters based on human behavioural ecology optimality principles and alternative conceptualizations of kaitiakitanga.

The goal of our modelling is not to replicate the precise past events or behaviours but rather to simulate individual decision-making that results in the emergence of spatial and temporal patterns that can be compared to the archaeological and ecological record.

Research aims:

  • The research combines archaeological, environmental, indigenous, ethnohistorical, and linguistic data with ecodynamic modelling to:
  • Collect and analyse archaeological, palaeoecological, and sedimentary data including: excavations and geophysical remote sensing, palynological coring, and geochemical and spectroscopic analyses.
  • Analyse ethnographic and ethnohistorical sources, and oral traditions, including whakataukī, from Aotearoa and other Polynesian islands to gain understanding of the historical underpinnings, guiding principles, and changing conceptions of Māori kaitiakitanga and tikanga.
  • Develop alternative sets of spatio-temporal ecodynamic models.
  • Assess convergence and divergence between model predictions and the archaeological and environmental data to provide insights into the ecodynamics of Māori horticulture and the origins and temporal dynamics of tikanga and kaitiakitanga.


  • Professor Thegn Ladefoged (Project Lead)
  • Dr Pierre Roudier
  • Dr Daniel Hikuroa
  • Professor Melinda Allen
  • Dr Rebecca Phillipps
  • Associate Professor Michael Plank
  • Dr Matiu Prebble
  • Associate Professor Tom Roa
  • Associate Professor Priscilla Wehi
  • Dr Emily Harvey
  • Dr Zac McIvor
  • Alexandra Queenin