Image Rua kai (food storage pit)

TLF ID R8536

This is a black and white photograph of a rua kai (food storage pit). The pit is dug into sloping ground, and the front is constructed from planks of wood, with a doorway in the centre. An unknown Mäori woman, well rugged up, sits on the earth roof of the pit, alongside a couple of small, dark pigs. Two whare (houses), behind the person, are nestled into the base of steep, scrub-covered cliffs. The image was taken in 1923 by James McDonald on the East Coast of New Zealand. It measures 11.5 centimetres high by 16.5 centimetres long.

Educational details

Educational value
  • The asset shows a rua kai that was most probably used for the storage of kümara (sweet potato). The kümara was one of several plants that Mäori brought with them from East Polynesia at the time of first human settlement in New Zealand; the others included yams, taro and gourds. Kümara came to Polynesia from America.
  • It illustrates the place where kümara were stored through the New Zealand winter – of all the plants Mäori brought with them, kümara flourished the best, but it still needed to be stored over winter – unlike the tropics where it could be grown all year round.
  • It shows a rua kai, also called rua kümara, a storage facility which was present in most Mäori settlements. They were designed to protect seed-tubers from destructive insects, rats, and mould. They were often lined with slabs of the trunks of tree ferns to keep out rats, and the tubers were carefully chosen, cleaned, and stacked to avoid blemishes that might begin to rot.
  • It indicates that Mäori were successful horticulturalists. Early European explorers noted gardens of up 80 hectares surrounding Mäori villages, and Mäori were quick to adopt European plants such as potatoes, maize, and pumpkins for their gardens, and for trade.
  • It indicates Mäori horticultural industry that was severely disrupted when Mäori lost much of their fertile land as a result of the New Zealand Wars in the nineteenth century.
  • It shows a form of storage that went into disuse. However, a cultural revival in growing Mäori potatoes in the later part of the twentieth century has seen a resurgence of interest in traditional practices, such as the use of rua kai.
  • It is a photograph by James McDonald, a photographer and artist who worked for the Dominion Museum (now Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) from 1905 to 1925. During the early 1920s he accompanied the well-known New Zealand ethnologist Elsdon Best on ethnographic trips in the North Island. Their images were often staged and constructed views of Mäori. The image is a black-and-white original negative.

Other details

  • Author
  • Person: James McDonald
  • Description: Author
  • Contributor
  • Name: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Organization: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Description: Content provider
  • Address: Wellington, NEW ZEALAND
  • URL:
  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Person: James McDonald
  • Description: Author
  • Publisher
  • Name: Curriculum Corporation\; The Le@rning Federation
  • Organization: Curriculum Corporation\; The Le@rning Federation
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
Access profile
  • Colour independence
  • Device independence
  • Hearing independence
Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • Text
  • © Ministry of Education New Zealand, 2008, except where indicated under Acknowledgements