Our ancestors had extensive knowledge of fungi and multiple uses for a number of them. The uses include for kai and rongoā, tā moko and as a tinder to start fires.
Fungi for tattooing
Our ancestors found different ways to make colour for tattooing. Black is an important colour, and one of the ways to make black was using a fungus. But the special fungus used, called āwheto (Ophiocordyceps robertsii), is light brown not black and is not often seen today. Somehow, our clever ancestors learned where it lives and collected lots of it. To get the black colour, they burnt it. Unlike wood that turns into grey ash when burnt, āwheto becomes black and can then be ground up into a black powder. This powder was mixed with bird fat to make the black colour for tattooing.
Āwheto is a very different kind of fungus from a mushroom, and is different from all other fungi used by our ancestors. It needs an insect as its food, but not just any insect. Only the large caterpillars of two kinds of native moth are the food that āwheto needs to grow. So how does āwheto, that can’t move, find these special two kinds of caterpillar? It only happens by luck or, if you are the caterpillar, by bad luck!
Āwheto makes many tiny fungal spores so that one might be eaten by a caterpillar, maybe along with some leaves, or one might become stuck to its body. Āwheto spores somehow know when they have found a caterpillar and they start to grow using the caterpillar’s insides as its food. You might guess what happens to the caterpillar!
This kind of caterpillar lives in a burrow in the soil when it’s not feeding, with its head up and tail down, but it seems to also go there when not feeling well. When the fungus feeds on the body of the caterpillar, the dead caterpillar doesn’t become soft and rot but instead becomes hard – rather like a human mummy. To make its spores, the fungus needs to grow out of the caterpillar and spread its spores above the soil. Somehow, the fungus knows that the shortest way above ground is from the head of the caterpillar, so it always starts growing out from there. It forms a straight stick-like fruiting body that grows up out of the soil and into the air. At its tip, spores are formed.
So what do you look for when trying to find āwheto? Simply a small brown stick coming out of the soil with a slightly pointed tip. If you are lucky enough to find it and carefully dig down into the soil, you will find the hard dead body of the caterpillar. Both the caterpillar mummy and fungus fruitbody were collected by our ancestors. But how did they find so many to use for tattooing?
Fungi for fire carrying
The pūtawa fungus feeds on the wood of living beech trees in Tāne-mahuta. Its fruitbodies are bracket shaped and often form high up on trunks. They grow quickly to a large size but only last a few weeks to months before becoming old and falling. When collected on the ground, they need to be dried out before they can be used.
Pūtawa was important as tinder – to help start a fire or as a way of carrying fire. When lit, a piece of the dried fruitbody can smoulder for a long time without bursting into flame, so it could be partly buried during the day and lit at night or carried until needed. It could also be used as a torch at night because it burns for a long time. Pūtawa also occurs in Australia where Aborigines used it for this same purpose.
For medical use, pūtawa was cut into flexible strips and used to surround and protect wounds. A hole larger than the wound was cut in the strip, and the pūtawa tied in place as a protective pad.
Tōtara is a tree of great importance including for building waka and for carving. Kaikākā refers to tōtara heartwood in the centre of old trees that has been decayed by one kind of fungus. The fungus, Inonotus lloydii, rots parts of the wood to form narrow honeycomb-like pockets, giving rise to an attractive effect in carvings. The decay weakens the affected wood and reduces its value for waka or building, but kaikākā wood can still be used for carvings and for fence posts. When reproducing, the fungus forms bracket-shaped fruitbodies on tōtara trunks.
Observation in the beech forest
Next time you are in a beech forest, look on the ground near the base of trees in case you find a fallen fruitbody of the pūtawa or puku tawai. They can be quite large and are often white and wet. They were dried thoroughly before being used as firelighters.
At the marae or museum
Look out for examples of carved tōtara wood, maybe in the wharenui, that has a honeycomb-like pattern - caused by a wood decay fungus when the tree was alive. Does the kaikākā enhance the carving?
Students can test their knowledge of Māori knowledge and uses of fungi in this online or paper-based quiz.
Dr Rebekah Fuller (Te Rarawa) completed a master’s degree looking at traditional Māori knowledge of New Zealand fungi. Hear about Rebekah’s research on fungi.
Explore Mahinga kai to find out about other important species.
This resource has been adapted from Ngā Hekaheka o Aotearoa, a science/pūtaiao guide for teachers written by Dr Peter Buchanan, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research; Dr Georgina Stewart, Te Kura Mātauranga School of Education, AUT University; and Hēni Jacob. These resources have been written from a Māori world view.
The Science Learning Hub would like to acknowledge Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and the writers for their permission and help to adapt this publication for the web.
An electronic version of this teacher guidebook is available to download from Huia Publishers.