Brian Hooker

New Zealand



Tiki and greenstone - a few notes,

 historical facts and a glossary


Brian Hooker


© Brian Hooker 2006. The text that follows is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review, no part may be reproduced without prior permission.
[NB. Words marked with an asterisk, are explained in the glossary.]



The value of greenstone lies in its beauty and hardness. This is a result to a large degree of its mineral composition; its main characteristic is the matting and interweaving of minute mineral fibres. Greenstone is a beautiful stone - ranked as semi-precious. The qualities of nephrite and bowenite are discussed under the sub-heading below, "The material of tiki & other greenstone pendants."

First let us look at the story of the Hei-tiki.* (Type "A" in this page under the heading "Types" - scroll down to Tiki-Types .) Many fallacies surround Hei-tiki. One account relates that they are often said to represent the human embryo. Another is that they are generally regarded as exclusively an ornament for women. The truth is that they first represented ancestors and embodied the mana* of previous owners. Monkhouse's observations seem to confirm this general statement although his explanation refers to ear pendants. (See below under "Reports by early European explorers." Both Maori men and women wore tiki.

Sometimes adzes were converted into tiki especially after first contact was made with Europeans and when metal tools made stone implements obsolete. During this period from about 1780 until the 1860s trade in tiki became intense. However, it is possible to detect tiki converted from adzes.

Apparently there was no rule as to which direction the head rested in a tiki - left or right. The head is always sharply bent but occasionally it could incline to the left instead of the more usual right. The sex could vary, although male was more common. The fishtail feet could take slightly different inward curls and so also could the placement of the three-fingered hands. The aperture for hanging was often in different places so that the figure was recumbent. Variation in size was enormous. All tiki are intriguingly different which might not appear to be the case at a passing glance.

Tiki received personal names and were regarded as family heirlooms. The shape is usually related to designs used in woodcarving but they were adapted to the inflexible nature of greenstone.


The material of tiki and other greenstone pendants


The name greenstone is commonly used to describe the predominantly greenish-coloured rock from which Maori made tiki and other pendants. Colour in tiki and other pendants varies from a dark greenish-black through a range of leaf-green hues to a milky-white celadon tint.

New Zealand greenstone is either the mineral nephrite or bowenite* (in Maori - nephrite is pounamu* and bowenite is tangiwai*). The Maori name for the South Island is Te Wai Pounamu). James Cook was given the name Tovy-poenammu for the South Island when he carried out the first European circumnavigation of New Zealand in 1769-1770. (See below under the sub-heading, "Reports by early European explorers").

Nephrite is found in the Taramakau-Arahura region of the South Island; the Taramakau River flows northwest from the Southern Alps to reach the sea between Greymouth and Hokitika and the Aruhura River flows northwest and reaches the sea northeast of Hokitika. Some nephrite is also found in the Wakatipu area Bowenite is found as beach boulders and pebbles at Anita Bay in Milford Sound.

Since the term jade is restricted to nephrite and another distinct mineral, jadeite, which is not present in New Zealand, New Zealand greenstone is either nephrite or bowenite. Thus, most New Zealand greenstone, the nephrite variety, is jade.

Maori divided greenstone into the following main varieties:
Kahurangi* - green, translucent, highly prized.
Kawakawa* - green, semi-translucent.
Inanga* - whitish, opaque. (Hence whitebait)
Tangawai* - translucent bowenite

Since April 1947 a government embargo has existed to prevent the export of unprocessed greenstone. (Reed) The purpose of this is to conserve stocks and also to encourage local manufacture of replica Maori ornaments including tiki.


In ancient times greenstone was worked by abrasion, with water, sand, and sandstone. An average size tiki, say about two and a half inches (about 6 cm), required hundreds of hours of labour. For crafting tiki and other greenstone pendants from greenstone, the Maori used a number of different tools: Saws were a thin stone assisted by wet abrasive sand. Files were made from a variety of material including sharkskin for rough polishing. For cutting, the Maori used dog's teeth. For final polishing other skins were used. According the Dodd (1969, 361), there were ten essential kinds of hand tools and the early Polynesians including the Maori used them all except one. (i.e. the plane) However, Dodd claims they used a tool, replaced today by the electric needle named the tatu tool.

Maori rapidly lost the art of working with greenstone and by the end of the 19th century it was almost a lost art. However, a few experts remained and passed the art down to the craftsmen of today.

Reports by early European explorers


The first knowledge of New Zealand greenstone, hei-tiki and other greenstone pendants was gained during James Cook's first Pacific voyage when he circumnavigated New Zealand in 1769-70 in HMB Endeavour. An entry relating to greenstone, in Cook's journal for 31 January 1770, reads:

This man spoke of three lands, the two above mentioned which he call'd Tovy-poenammu [South Island of New Zealand] which signifies green Talk or stone such as the [y] Make their tools on, or oramints Eca … (Beaglehole 1968, 243)

On the Endeavour with Cook was Joseph Banks who wrote in his journal in March 1770 (in describing the garments and ornaments of the Maori people):

… and the men often had the figure of a distorted man made of the before mentioned green talk, … (Beaglehole, 1962, II, 17)

An artist on the Endeavour (probably Sydney Parkinson) prepared a sketch, which was later reproduced as a copper engraving. 

Also accompanying Cook during his first Pacific voyage on the Endeavour was William Brougham Monkhouse. Monkhouse's journal also mentions tiki:

… this man had a human tooth hanging in his ear - and a piece of green talk about two & half inches long, and an inch & half broad, flat, and carved into the figure of a most uncouth animal of fancy - the head occupied one half the figure, somewhat resembled the face of a monkey - and reclined to the right side - so the other part of the figure would require a very happy imagination to liken it to any thing that would give an idea of it - however this was called a monkey face, which may serve to distinguish it in future - this monkey face then was hung round our friend's neck - I forgot to mention that its eyes were blazoned with pieces of Ear-shell … the other Man … He had a narrow slip of Jasper talk formed somewhat like a fresh bean [Beaglehole, 581 re kapeu or Tautau curved ] hanging to his ear - he did not choose to part with it, answering in excuse that he wore it in memory of a deceased friend - his words were, that it was the tooth of a deceas'd person. We see they wear human teeth most commonly in the ears - his calling this piece of talk by that name, only shewed that it was wore on the same account, therefore equally to be preserved. (Beaglehole 1968, 581)

The French explorer J. F. M. de Surville, in command of the St Jean Baptiste, visited the northern part of New Zealand, in December 1769. An entry in de Surville's journal for 18 December 1769 reads:

by way of ornament they hang around their necks a greenish stone like glass which represents a devil figure - I cannot describe it clearly." (Olivier & Hingley, 225.

In 1772 another Frenchman, Marc-Joseph Marion visited New Zealand and. In command of the two ships in the expedition, the Mascarin and  Marquis de Castries, Marion called first at Spirits Bay. He later anchored in the Bay of islands. Jean Roux an ensign on board the Mascarin kept a journal of the visit and an entry in June 1772 records:

in the middle of their houses they have planted a big post, which is carved with a hideous figure, … Other than that each chief and various other natives wear round their necks a green stone as broad as a hand on which the same figure is engraved." (Ollivier, 165)

René Primavère Lesson accompanied Louis Isidore Duperrey's La Coquille expedition to New Zealand in 1824. An entry in his journal written in April 1824 records:

I bought some of the jade fetishes ... (Sharp, 59)

In another reference describing the geographical makeup of New Zealand, Lesson notes: Cook, on information given him by the New Zealanders, adopted the name Tawai-poenamou for the southern [island]. Tawai-pouna-mou means the whale (tawai) which makes the green jade.

Sharp refers (n. 91): the name is usually taken to mean Te Waipounamu "The Water of greenstone", referring to the fact that the best greenstone (pounamou) came from the South Island.

The French explorer Dumont d'Urville visited New Zealand in the corvette l'Astrolabe, in 1827. Two Maori accompanied the explorer during part of his northward voyage off the east coast. An entry in d'Urville's journal for 30 January 1827 records:

[the two Maori] told me that pounamou, the green jade of which they make their most precious ornaments and instruments, is found in the neighbourhood. They explained several times that in the southern island pounamou was found, but not pigs, whereas on the contrary, in the northern island pigs were found, but no pounamou. (Wright, 107).

   The main types of greenstone pendants

Greenstone ornaments: (See the glossary below) A, hei tiki; B, hei matau; C, pekapeka; D, marakihau; E, tautau; F, kuru; G, flat pendant; H, 'kinked' pendant; I, 'bird' pendant; J, adze pendant. - Figure 62 (Page 85) from Janet Davidson The Prehistory of New Zealand (Auckland: Longman Paul Ltd., 1984. - by permission.)

For a further range of shapes and types, the interested reader should consult Chapter 4 "Maori Amulets" in, Henry Devenish Skinner Comparatively Speaking (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1974); the chapter includes illustrations of pendants and deals extensively with the subject.



(References are in the bibliography - see below.)

Amulet. A charm carried about the person; a medicine supposed to have occult operation. (Chambers, 41.)

Bowenite. Named after G. T. Bowen 19th century American mineralogist who analysed it. A mineral consisting of a hard, compact light-green serpentine resembling nephrite. (Websters, 262.)

Gem. Commonly a mineral or organic substance that is cut and polished and used as an ornament. Jade comes within the broad scope of the tern gem. The qualities sought in gems are beauty, rarity, and durability. The unit of weight used for gems is the metric carat (200 mg). Gems are usually cut to bring out their colour and brilliance and to remove flaws. Jade, which is the main subject of this web site is not a precious stone but a semiprecious stone.

Greenstone. (1) A vague name for any compost basic or intermediate igneous rock. (Chambers, 550) (2) A wide term, usually comprising the greenish-coloured eruptive rocks containing feldspar and hornblende (or augite), such as diorite, melaphyre, etc. [also nephrite] Oxford, 888.

"Green talk". Description or term for greenstone used on the Endeavour in 1769-1770. (See Beaglehole, 1962, & Beaglehole, 1968.)

Hei. Pendant. (Dodd, 343.)

Hei-matau. Neck pendant in the form of a fishhook (Davidson, 1984, 243), or perhaps derived from a fishhook. (Barrow, 118) - See "B" in Figure 62, in the page under the heading Types.

Hei-tiki. The full and correct name for tiki. (1) According to Skinner the name was in two parts; hei meaning pendant (as in hei-matau: fishhook) and tiki. Skinner explains that the word tiki in this sense has its common meaning of human form. (Skinner, 46-47.) (2) Neck pendant in the form of a stylised human figure. (Davidson, 1984, 243.) (3) Anthropomorphic pendant (Barrow, 1972, 118) - See "A" in Figure 62, in this page under the heading Types.

Inanga. Whitish, opaque. (Hence whitebait)

Jade. The common name for either of two minerals, both white to green in colour, used as gems. Jadeite NaA(SiO3)2, rarer and costlier, is found in Myanmar, China, Japan, and Guatemaia. Also nephrite. (See below.) Jade has been particularly prized by the Chinese and Japanese as the most precious of gems. (Columbia on-line Encyclopaedia.) and aluminium, closely resembling nephrite in appearance. (Oxford, 1125.)

Kahurangi - green, translucent, highly prized. (Williams, 84-6.)

Kawakawa - green, semi-translucent. A dark variety of greenstone. (Williams, 110-4.)

Kia-ora. A Maori greeting meaning in general "good health," "good day" etc. Widely used in New Zealand today.

Kuru. Kurukuru. A straight type of greenstone pendant. (Freeman & Geddes, 52.) (The most common type found in archaeological sites.) - - See "F" in Figure 62, in this page under the heading Types - click on Types in the top panel.

Mana. 1) An unknown or mystical power associated with persons and things. Widely used in New Zealand today in respect of influential or highly regarded persons. 2) Authority, prestige, power. (Davidson, 243.)

Marakihau. A type of greenstone ornament perhaps resembling a tiki. (See Davidson, 85; Freeman & Geddes, 52.) - Also see "D" in Figure 62, Page "4-Types" (This page))

Maori. The original inhabitants of New Zealand.

Maoritanga. The traditions and ideals and culture of the Maori people. (Webster, 1379)

Nephrite. The mineral jade, in the narrowest sense - an old charm against kidney disease. - (Chambers, 849.) Nephrite Ca2(Mg,Fe)5Si8O22(OH,F)2 occurs in New Zealand, Central Asia, Siberia, and parts of North America.

Pekapeka. Type of ornament. (Davidson, 243- Skinner, 49; Freeman & Geddes, 53.) - See "C" in Figure 62, in this page under the heading Types.

Pendant. Anything hanging, especially for ornament: a hanging ornament worn on the neck. For greenstone pendant shapes - - See Figure 62, in the page under the heading Types - click on Types in the top panel.

Pounamu, Paonomu, Pounamou. Maori name for greenstone.

Rei. Pendant ornament (Barrow, 118.)

Rei-puta. Type of pendant (Skinner, 49; Freeman & Geddes, 52.)

Serpentine. A soft, usually green mineral, a hydrated magnesium silicate, occurring in winding veins and in masses, formed by alteration of olivine, etc.: a rock (in full, serpentine-rock), commonly an altered peridotite. Composed mainly of the mineral serpentine. (Chambers, 1184.)

Tangawai - translucent bowenite.

A type of greenstone pendant. - See "E" in Figure 62, in the page under the heading Types.

Tiki. (See Hei-tiki.)


(Barrow) Barrow, T. Art & Life in Polynesia (Wellington: A. H. & A. W Reed, 1972)

(Beaglehole, 1962) Beaglehole, J. C. (ed) The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks (Sydney: The Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales in Association with Angus & Robertson, 2 vols, 1962).

---------------- (1968) Beaglehole, J. C. (ed.),
The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery - The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771 (Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, 1968.)

(Best) Best, Elsdon, The Maori As He Was - Reprint Edition (Wellington: A.R. Shearer, Government Printer, 1974.

(Chambers) Chambers 20th Century Dictionary -
New Edition (ed. by E M Kirkpatrick), Edinburgh, 1983.

(Davidson) Davidson, Janet, The Prehistory of New Zealand (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1984.)

(Dodd) Dodd, Edward, Polynesian Art (London: Robert Hale & Co., 1969.)

(Freeman & Geddes) Freeman, J. D. & W. R. Geddes (eds) Anthropology in the South Seas (New Plymouth: Thomas Avery & Sons, 1959.)

(Ollivier) Ollivier, Isabel
(transcript. & translat.) Early Eyewitness Accounts of Maori Life 2 Extracts from Journals relating to the visit to New Zealand in May-July 1772 of the French ships Mascarin and Marquis de Castries under the Command of M.-J. Marion du Fresne, with an Appendix of charts & drawings compiled by Jeremy Spencer (Wellington: Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust with Indosuez New Zealand Ltd., 1985.)

(Ollivier & Hingley) Ollivier, Isabel & Cheryl Hingley (transcript. & translat.) Early Eyewitness Accounts of Maori Life 1 Extracts from Journals Relating to the Visit to New Zealand of the French ship St Jean Baptiste in December 1769 Under the Command of J.F.M. de Surville, with an Appendix of Charts & Drawings Compiled by Jeremy Spencer (Wellington: Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust in association with the National Library of New Zealand, 1982.)

(Oxford) The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary - Revised & Ed. By C.T. Onions, third ed., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2 vols, 1972-1983.)

(Reed) Reed, J. J. "Greenstone" (in) A. H. McLintock (ed.) An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand vol. 1, 875 (Wellington: R. E. Owen, Govt. Printer, 1966.)

(Sharp) Sharp, Andrew (ed.) Duperrey's visit to New Zealand in 1824 (Wellington: Alexander Turnbull Library, 1971.)

(Skinner) Skinner, Henry Devenish,
Comparatively Speaking - Studies in Pacific Material Culture 1921-1972 (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1974.)

(Websters) Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1971.)

(Williams) Williams, Herbert W., A Dictionary of the Maori Language (Wellington: A. R. Shearer, Govt. Printer, 1975.)

(Wright) Wright, Olive
(ed.) New Zealand 1826-1827 from the French of Dumont D'Urville (Printed by the Wingfield Press for Olive Wright, 1950.)