Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust partners with Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research

Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust (NTMRAT) and Te Rūnanga o Arowhenua are kaitiaki of a group of nationally significant Māori rock art sites at Ōpihi, South Canterbury. Pūnaha Hihikō Vision Mātauranga Capability Fund is supporting the trust’s project to restore the ecological values of the land surrounding these 14 nationally significant sites.

What is the project?

A key part of this project involves research into the plants and animals inhabiting the sites – from pre-human habitation to mana whenua use of the area, the arrival of Pākehā settlers and the changes in ecology over time.

In July 2022, researchers from NTMRAT and Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research took peat cores from the wetland, analysing them for pollen, charcoal and ancient plant DNA so they could reconstruct the site’s vegetation history. Guided by mana whenua, the team also excavated a rock overhang to identify preserved plant and animal remains, which will provide additional information about past ecosystems.

The NTMRAT researchers also started collating existing archaeological research and mātauranga relating to mahika kai (resource gathering practices and places) in the wider area.

Why is it important to the community?

The interwoven history of people and biodiversity at the site will help inform iwi restoration plans, enrich understanding of how Ngāi Tahu tīpuna lived, and contribute to the development of an educational programme.

Combining botanical knowledge of the limestone and wetland vegetation with past vegetation reconstructions will provide a baseline on which current biodiversity can be compared and restored. The aim is to ensure that what’s being planted on the site accurately reflects the ecology of the area at the time the rock art was created, protecting and enhancing the cultural and ecological values within the Ngāi Tahu rohe.

The research will also allow better understanding of the lives of the tīpuna that created the art. This includes the practice of mahika kai, and the resources available to them at the time the art was created, and how these changed over time.  This information will be used in the education programme delivered to Ngāi Tahu whānui, landowners with rock art sites on their properties, schools and local territorial authority staff on site. It will bring to life iwi history and current mana whenua connections to the site for visitors and support the kaitiaki role of mana whenua.

The area is a focal point for community engagement and education, with a cultural education programme (supported by the Ministry of Education) raising awareness and appreciation of the natural and cultural values of these places as a basis for their protection for future generations.

How has Te Pūnaha Hihiko: Vision Mātauranga Capability Fund helped?

“Grants like Pūnaha Hihikō Vision Mātauranga Capability Fund support focused research into questions that are important to our rūnanga communities, and the development of mutually beneficial relationships between Crown Research Institutes like Manaaki Whenua and mana whenua groups such as the NTMRAT and rūnanga.” – Amanda Symon, Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust

The protection of iwi values such as rock art, mahika kai, puna (springs) and kūkūwai (wetlands) are often considered separately by different government agencies and territorial authorities. This project allows us to consider all of these values together and provide a stronger case for protecting each of them.

What’s next?

The project will act as a pilot for a much larger research and funding proposal involving similar techniques at multiple rock art sites. This will directly support the protection, restoration and management of multiple rock art sites, and the development of a robust body of research based on both mātauranga and palaeoecology, driven by mana whenua.