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Molluscan mulching at the margins: investigating the development of a South Island Māori variation on Polynesian hard mulch agronomy


Correspondence: Ian Barber, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Otago, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand. Email:


Hard mineral clast sediments applied to dry archaeological fields in the distant apical islands of the Polynesian triangle are frequently associated with sweet potato / kūmara (Ipomoea batatas (L) Lam.) cultivation. In a novel variation on this practice, north-western South Island Māori deposited tuangi (Austrovenus stutchburyi (Wood, 1828)) mollusc beach valves to cap 10–20 cm deep planting holes or pits by or around the sixteenth century AD at Triangle Flat, Golden Bay. Discrete tuangi beach valve sediment had been extended over much of the larger field surface in association with shallow (<10 cm deep) planting depressions. Surface shell deposits would have suppressed weed growth, redirected radiant energy onto young kūmara plants, and conserved planting pit soil and moisture against disruptive and desiccating winds, respectively. The temporal extension of Triangle Flat shell sediment could be related to socio-economic and political pressures to improve kūmara production from a fixed land unit. However, since climate change beginning in the sixteenth century brought cooler temperatures and eventually, stronger westerly winds to this region, it seems more likely that shell mulch was extended to maintain shallow planting soils and production in a colder, windier period. This local, kūmara-focused development may have been encouraged by the opportunity to apply ritually safe and perhaps spiritually potent, uncooked tuangi beach shell to tapu cultivation surfaces.