06. Searching for Salt in New Zealand

Searching for Salt in New Zealand
By Eben van Tonder
7 July 2018

An installment in the series, The Salt Bridge

meat container
A Māori container – from the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch.


The southern coast of Africa – a unique place where human ghosts as old as 80 000 years walk the beaches. Minette and I got engaged here, celebrating those most ancient inhabitants on top of Table Mountain.

We chose a land where human ghosts only appeared around 1000 years ago to get married. The south island of New Zealand. Until the arrival of Polynesian colonists, who became the Māori people, the land didn’t know the footsteps of humans.

Even after the first colonists arrived on the South Island of New Zealand, they only moved through the Cheviot Hills and on its beaches very occasionally as nomadic hunters 730 years ago. Their main seat of occupation being the Kaikoura Coast, the Cheviot coast, including Manuka Bay where we got married was less preferred for hunting and fishing. This makes the area one of the oldest permanently uninhabited places on earth. A fitting place to celebrate our union which we never saw as a celebration of humanity but rather nature. (Wilson; 1993)

When another group of colonist arrived recently in the form of Europeans, they thought the land to be completely uninhabited. Allen Giles wrote of his early years on Mount Parnassus in 1890 that the “Virgin South Island produced a feeling of “frightful loneliness.” He described it as “a brand new land… untouched by the ghosts of men and their traditions. There appeared never to have been men. All was clean, pure and emotionless; unsullied by man’s occupation.” (Wilson; 1993)

Hints of what the Cheviot area looked like before the fires of the Polynesians resulted in the replacement of forests with grasslands and scrubs have been discovered in Treasure Downs. The discovery happened in 1986 when a farmer discovered moa bones on his farm in the hills east of Cheviot township. Moa is the giant flightless bird, endemic to New Zealand, hunted into extinction by the Maori and by 1440 the extinction was complete. (Perry; 2014) What was revealed through an official archeological dig is that there once was a small, deep lake in a natural basin in limestone hills. The lake had a peaty margin, fed by underground springs. About 5000 years ago the dominant species had been matai (a black pine, endemic New Zealand), pokaka (a native forest tree of New Zealand), manuka, and flax and fern. Well preserved moa bones were also found in the former lake. (Wilson; 1993)

The area became a perfect reference point for my search for the ancient history of salt in New Zealand. It unlocks the history of its people and turns out to be more fascinating than I could have imagined. Not in their use of salt, but its complete absence!

The Hurunui River Mouth – A Food Gathering Station

Close to Manuka Bay is the Hurunui river mouth. Duff identified it as the location of a Māori food-gathering station. Other artifacts found at the river mouth were a number of adze-heads. They were made from baked argillite originating from the Nelson are and their shape identified them as from the moa-hunter period, six to eight centuries ago. In 1946, a farmer plowed up a forty-eight kg block of obsidian on his farm at the river mouth. The block was used to make flake tools, even though most of these tools discovered at the river mouth were of flint rather than obsidian.

Manuka Beach – a stopover location

On Manuka Beach, Māori ovens and artifacts have been found. (Wilson; 1993) These ovens are found throughout the region and Nick Harris reports that there are Maori ovens on his farm in the area. These earth ovens were called hāngī or umu. Hāngī sizes varied depending on what was cooked – joints from moa and seals required large ovens, whereas fish or kūmara (sweet potato) could be cooked in smaller ovens. (Teara.govt.nz) These earth ovens were basically a pit, dug in the ground. Stones were heated in the pit with a large fire and baskets were placed on top of the stones. Everything was covered with earth for several hours before uncovering. Exact cooking times and pit design varied depending on what must be cooked and is in use till this day. The origin of the technology is Polynesian. (Ministry for Primary Industries, May 2013 and Genuine Maori Cuisine, 2012)

Ange Montgomery pointed out that there are karaka trees planted in the Cheviot area. The tree is native to the north island and its seeds were planted by the Māori at stop over places as food source. Another clear indication locals using the area during migration and other movements. Apart from its fruit, this fascinating tree was used as a bait tree. It attracted other animals to feast on its fruits which in turn was caught for food.

“Karaka kernel is highly toxic. Under the orange skin of the fruit is an edible pulp. The danger lurks in the kernel or stone of the fruit which contains the toxic alkaloid karakin.

The pulpy flesh can be eaten and to this day people harvest the berries and enjoy them. Some even use the flesh to make an alcoholic karaka drink.

The Maori used to use the poisonous kernels as well. They used a special method to prepare the kernels which include soaking, boiling and soaking again as well as cooking in a hangi for 24 hours.” (stuff.co.nz). Ange points out how amazing it is that people were able to work this kind of thing out. The power of observation and careful analysis of the natural world by ancients never ceases to amaze me in a rushed world where we have largely lost this ability!

Where is the salt? (New Zealand Meat Preservation)

It is fascinating that no salt industries existed on either one of the two islands before the Europeans arrived. In light of the point just made about the karaka tree, this is not a trifle fact to escape our notice. No rock salt exists anywhere in New Zealand, but there are salt marshes and the technology to extract salt from these by burning the plants that grow in them is known from New Guinea, another Polynesian settlement in the region. Why this was not done in New Zealand is a question to be answered.

In New Zealand, food was preserved amongst other, using fat. There is a story related to Lake Grassmere or Kapara-te-hau as the Maori’s call it. There is an account of the great chief, Te Rauparahara coming from the north “to take ducks to preserve in fat for winter food.” (theprow.org.nz)

The Māori preserved meat through smoking, sun drying, potting in fat and chilling by dropping containers with meat into water. Sweet potatoes were stored in underground pits, but whether they used these pits for meat is something I do knot know. Mutton birds were placed in inflated kelp and preserved in their own fat. Folded bark from the totata tree was used as containers to store meat, being preserved in fat. (Canterbury Museum)

Added salt would have been part of the diet of Māoris at the coast from sea water when they ate seafood. When they lived inland, no salt would have been added to their diet. Their source of sodium would have been that which is in the meat itself. This means that their diet was somewhat similar to the San and Khoikhoi of Southern Africa who also did not use salt, but there is evidence that they were ocasionally exposed to salt traders from the north.


On the menu for the New Zealand adventure:

1. Build an earth pit and cook food.

2. Preserve meat using fat.

3. Eating of the karaka tree and fermenting it into an alcoholic drink. Always a worthwhile endeavor! 🙂

4. Understanding why salt was never extracted.

The fact that salt was not part of the Māori diet is fascinating! How well the technology was entrenched by the early Polynesian colonists is to be determined. How well was cooking part of the Māori diet?

The quest of a lifetime!!


Canterbury Museum exhibition.

Perry, George L.W.; Wheeler, Andrew B.; Wood, Jamie R.; Wilmshurst, Janet M. (2014-12-01). “A high-precision chronology for the rapid extinction of New Zealand moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes)”. Quaternary Science Reviews. 105: 126–135. Bibcode:2014QSRv..105..126P. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2014.09.025. Retrieved 2014-12-22.

Ministry for Primary Industries (May 2013). He whakatairanga i nga ahuatanga mahi mo te tunu hangi – Food Safety practices in preparing and cooking a hangi (PDF). Wellington: New Zealand Government. ISBN 978-0-478-41430-1. Retrieved 6 October 2014.

“The New Zealand Maori Hangi: Foods, Preparations and Methods Used”. Genuine Maori Cuisine. Epuro Hands International Limited. 2005. Retrieved October 2, 2012.



Wilson, John. Cheviot, Kingdom to country. Rangiora Printing Service, 1993.