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The cultural value of taewa (Māori potatoes)

Māori have grown taewa in New Zealand for over 200 years. Taewa are a taonga, or treasure, with significant historical and cultural value.

The potato originated in South America over 2,000 years ago. It was introduced to Europe and the United Kingdom in the 16th century. Potatoes were first brought to New Zealand by European explorers in the late 18th century. Māori, the first settlers in New Zealand, gave the traditional cultivars Māori names and have continued to grow them ever since.

The impact of taewa on Māori society

The introduction of potatoes had a really positive impact on Māori society. Before potatoes were introduced, Māori grew kūmara, taro, yams and gourds brought with them from Polynesia, but they didn’t grow well in New Zealand’s cooler climate. Māori rapidly included potatoes as a main crop because they were so easy to grow and higher yielding than kūmara. They grew in all areas of New Zealand, whereas kumara only grew in warmer northern areas.

Potatoes became a staple Māori food crop and also a valuable form of currency for trading. By the time Europeans settled in New Zealand in the mid 19th century, Māori were growing taewa extensively. They were a vital food crop for the European settlers and were also exported to Australia.

Decline in production

The commercial production of taewa by Māori peaked in the late 1850s and rapidly declined after the land wars that ended in 1872. Many of the traditional varieties are still grown by Māori today – mostly in rural areas and for their own consumption.

Taonga – a treasure

Taewa are considered a taonga (treasure) by Māori. They treasure them because of their historical and cultural significance. They are a link to their cultural heritage and early lifestyle in New Zealand and are particularly precious because they have been passed down from their ancestors through many generations.

Their value as a taonga is likely to be a key factor in Māori continuing to grow taewa despite the plants’ lower yield compared to modern potatoes. It can also be argued that they taste better than modern potatoes!

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