Mātauranga Māori and Science

Mātauranga Māori and Science Collaboration

Seascape, New Zealand

By: Maria Victoria Gonzaga

In the previous lesson, we learned about the various methods used in measuring biodiversity. Now, let’s learn about ecology and biodiversity research that incorporates mātauranga Māori.

Mātauranga Māori

Mātauranga Māori, by translation, is Māori knowledge. Nevertheless, mātauranga is more than just “knowledge“. It encompasses Māori world views, language, cultural practices, and principles. (Ref. 1) The mātauranga originated from Māori ancestors and it has been passed down across generations.

Mātauranga Māori is different from modern science in the way they formulate their initial questions and the approach in searching for answers. In modern science, the first questions are typically the “What is this thing for?”, “What is the role?”, and the questions that start out at “Why” and “How”. In answering these questions, it uses the scientific method approach. In mātauranga Māori, an initial question is something like this, “Who or what is this thing I am seeing in this world”, and “How do I relate to it?” (Ref. 2) Māori approach is rooted in mātauranga Māori.

Mātauranga Māori and Science Collaboration

Science has seen and recognized the pivotal role of mātauranga Māori in understanding and exploring the world and all things in existence. New Zealand is one of the last major landmasses that humans settled in. Polynesians were the first to discover it and named it Aotearoa.

Without a doubt, these early discoverers were great marine navigators of their time. Long-distant voyages will require a great feat of knowledge and experience, especially about the physics of the oceans and the seas. (Ref. 3)

Early Polynesians
Credit: Grey, George, Sir, 1812-1898, from the book: “Polynesian mythology and ancient traditional history of the New Zealand race, as furnished by their priests and chiefs”

The early Polynesians that settled in New Zealand were ancestors of the Māori. A genome-wide study of the ancient DNA suggests that these ancient mariners were East Asians. They explored the Pacific and found New Zealand through one of the waves of their exploration. (Ref. 4)

Polynesians settled on the land probably between 1200 and 1300 AD. (Ref. 5) Then, it was only in 1642 that European explorers gained the first sight of the country.

Mātauranga Māori is gaining recognition as to what it can bring to ecology and conservation. The active participation of the entire community is crucial to the success of biodiversity restoration and conservation projects. Incorporating mātauranga Māori can help these projects bound to succeed. That is because a strong relationship with the local communities can create a platform where exchanges of ideas and concerns can occur.

The locals will be able to relay their needs and concerns. In return, they gain new perspectives from science. Science benefits by developing strategies based on mātauranga Māori, including Māori experiences, creativity, principles, values, and culture.

Māori have an inherent responsibility as kaitiaki (guardian, keeper, preserver, conservator, or protector) and science can help in bringing this task into realization. (Ref. 1)

Dr. Priscilla Wehi, a conservation biologist, believes that the integration of mātauranga and Western science made her work stronger. “I think the beauty of mātauranga is that it’s another way, a very powerful way, of linking people to places, to practices and to a deeper understanding of the world that we live in.”, Dr. Wehi said. (Ref. 6)

The Toheroa Abundance Project

Toheroa (Paphies ventricosa) is a large shellfish and a popular seafood delicacy. This mollusk species of the family of saltwater clams (Mesodesmatidae) is endemic to New Zealand.

The species used to be plentiful. But the number of toheroa collapsed in the early to the mid of the 20th century when the species was intensively harvested for export and commercial purposes.

In an effort to save them from getting extinct, the harvesting of toheroa has been banned. In 1981, a full-scale ban was enforced. (Ref. 7)

However, even after many years, their population hasn’t recovered yet. What could have gone wrong? Could there be other factors involved in causing the persistent decline of toheroa population?

Iwi and the Ministry for Primary Industries are working hand in hand to revive the toheroa population. Shade Smith, an ecologist and member of the Toheroa Abundance Project, narrated how they were able to recruit help from kaitiaki, kuia (a Māori female elder), and kaumātua (Māori elders) on one of the beaches they surveyed. They demonstrated to the locals how they conducted surveys using quadrats.

“So basically, we take a 0.25-meter square quadrat, dig it out, count all the toheroa and tuatua, record the measurements, the lengths and then we move on 10 meters down the shore”, Shade Smith recalled. On that day, more than thirty people joined in as kaitiaki and iwi helpers. (Ref. 7)

Tapping into mātauranga Māori helped the project to move forward. They were able to allocate their surveys along the beach appropriately, which used to be quite a challenge. Through the anecdotal information and mātauranga provided by kaitiaki and kaumātua, they were able to devise a roadmap for conducting surveys and investigations. Subsequently, they were able to come up with an estimate of the density of the shellfish and were able to track their population on the same beach area through time. (Ref. 7)

In 2011, they found over 40 beds of toheroa at Ripiro Beach. The next step is to identify what’s obstructing the recovery of the toheroa population. Easterly winds and calm seas can lead to mass mortality of toheroa. These events prevent the waves from swashing up, which is essential for toheroa survival. Therefore, the shellfish could die on the dry beds. These, however, are natural events. (Ref. 7)

The team discovered another factor — a population explosion of black-backed gulls. This bird can take 30 shellfish a day. So, as the population of gulls increases, it means more and more of them can take toheroa off the beach. Another possible factor is the human-induced impacts. All these factors impede toheroa from reverting to their formerly abundant population. (Ref. 7)

The Toheroa Abundance Project is just one of the many projects where Western science and mātauranga Māori have come together to gain a better understanding of the ecological standpoint of the country’s ecosystem and biodiversity.


Credit: Marae


Tiaki – Care for New Zealand

Tiaki is a Maori word that means “to care for people and place”.  (Ref. 8) Both public and private sector organizations work hand in hand in taking care of New Zealand. Tourism New Zealand, Air New Zealand, the Department of Conservation, Tourism Industry Aotearoa, Local Government New Zealand, New Zealand Māori Tourism and Tourism Holdings Ltd. created the Tiaki Promise, which is a commitment to looking after and protecting New Zealand.  The Tiaki Promise helps foster safe and conscientious travel by setting up guiding principles for visitors to follow and encouraging them how they may be able to contribute in preserving and protecting the land. Visit their official website for more information.


Credit: TiakiNewZealand.com


In the next lesson, let us explore the impact of biosecurity threats.


1. Mātauranga Māori and science. (2017). Science Learning Hub. https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/2545-matauranga-maori-and-science
2. Simultaneous Success Trajectories MĀTAURANGA MĀORI. (n.d.). https://kep.org.nz/assets/resources/site/Voices7-16.Matauranga-Maori.pdf
3. Pūtahitanga: the intersection of western science and mātauranga Māori in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand’s physical oceanography. (2019). New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00288330.2019.1698621
4. Gibbons, A. (2016). ‘Game-changing’ study suggests first Polynesians voyaged all the way from East Asia. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/10/game-changing-study-suggests-first-polynesians-voyaged-all-way-east-asia
5. A brief history. (2020). New Zealand Now. https://www.newzealandnow.govt.nz/living-in-nz/history-government/a-brief-history
6. Mātauranga and the integration of Māori and western knowledge. (2020). Science Learning Hub. https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/2858-matauranga-and-the-integration-of-maori-and-western-knowledge
7. Toheroa: Rejuvenating a Delicacy. (2016). Science Learning Hub. https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/videos/565-toheroa-rejuvenating-a-delicacy
8. Tiaki – Care for New Zealand. (2020). Tourismnewzealand.Com. https://www.tourismnewzealand.com/tools-for-your-business/tiaki-care-for-new-zealand/



Choose the best answer. 

1. Polynesians were the first human settlers of New Zealand and they named the land "Aotearoa".

2. Mātauranga Māori encompasses world views, language, cultural practices, and principles that originated from Māori ancestors, and then got passed down across generations.

3. Maori word "tiaki" means “to care for people and place”.

4. The Toheroa Abundance Project is an example of Western science and mātauranga Māori working together in the conservation of endemic species in New Zealand.

5. In Maori, "kuia" is a guardian, keeper, preserver, conservator, or protector.

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