Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 20, June 1976


Obsidian, often termed volcanic glass, was of considerable importance to the early Maori who used it for his weapons and implements. The major source of this stone was Mayor Island, close to our district, but it necessitated canoe transport.

Obsidian is a natural glass formed from lava which has undergone extremely rapid cooling which prevents the formation of a crystalline structure found in other rocks. Chemically, obsidian has the same composition as granite and most of it is black but occasionally it is found in grey, green, brown or red colours. When broken into thin pieces, however, obsidian is almost clear, except for a fine sprinkling of dusty grains. In the black variety these grains are Magnetite (magnetic iron ore) and when this has been oxidized to Hematite [haematite – E] it results in obsidian having a brown or red colour.

Apart from New Zealand sources, obsidian is found in many volcanic parts of the world. Owing to its compact and uniform structure it could be chipped and flaked into pointed and sharp edged objects used by primitive man. The art of spalling off blades of obsidian six inches or more was highly developed by the ancient inhabitants of Mexico. The American Indian of every tribe worked up arrowheads, spearpoints and knives. Obsidian is said to be named after a person Obsidius, who, according to legend, first found it in Ethiopia.

The "arrival" of obsidian in New Zealand, according to Polynesian Mythology, was the outcome of a dispute between, Poutini, (greenstone) and Whaiapu (obsidian). For a long time they had rested in the same place (Hawaiki) but Hine-tua-Hoanga, to whom the stone Whaiapu belonged, became enraged with Ngahue and his stone, Poutini. At last she drove him out and Ngahue departed taking his greenstone. Ngahue landed at Tuhua (Mayor Island) but Hine-tua-Hoanga followed him and again drove him away. After a call at the North Island, Ngahue settled at Arahura (West Coast South Island) whilst Hine-tua-Hoanga remained on Tuhua.

It is well known that the Maori used greenstone (Nephrite) for his weapons and implements. Because of the remote South Island locality of this material it is possible that Nephrite and Tangiwai were not discovered for several centuries after the settlement of New Zealand. By contrast Mayor Island in the Bay of Plenty was virtually in the path of the Polynesian travelling to New Zealand. Obsidian has been found in the earliest "Moa Hunter" camps so that its importance during the very first period of inhabitation is considerable, even if over-shadowed by the later era of greenstone implements.

Obsidian was known to the Maori as Tuhua, the name they also gave to Mayor Island. According to traditional history there were four types of Tuhua. These were:

(a) Tuhua, which is black. This was used by the Moa Hunters for cutting up the Moa.

(b) Waipu, which is of a light colour, used by the people to cut themselves when they were crying for the dead.

(c) Panetao, which is green, and was used for the same purpose as Waipu, but when the dead was a Chief.

(d) Kahurangi, which is red and used when the dead were head Chiefs or Priests.

Panatao [panetao ? – E] was also used when the dead were children and the same was used to cut human hair.

The Moa Hunters carried a block of Tuhua with them and chipped off pieces as it was needed because once used it was not used again for any other bird or anything else but left at the spot where used. Other Maori names given to obsidian were: Whaiapu (in the myth) or Waiapu; Mata another name was also used to refer to flint or quartz. Williams in "A Dictionary of the Maori Language" states – Mata:

1) Flint, quartz or obsidian, used for cutting.

2) Matu-Waiapu, a stone found at Waiapu near the East Cape.

3) Mata-Tuhua, obsidian from Mayor Island.

4) Mata-Kautete, saw-like weapon, made of flakes of obsidian or sometimes shark's teeth, fastened to a wooden frame.

In the book "Dictionary of Maori Place Names" (A.W. Reed), Whangamata is stated to have been so called as it was the harbour (Whanga-) where obsidian (Mata) was washed ashore from Mayor Island. It is difficult to understand how obsidian, being a heavy rock, could be washed ashore, perhaps it was the harbour where obsidian was brought ashore by Maoris or as Mata has other meaning such as "headland", the name Whangamata may not refer to obsidian.