The first peoples to venture into the Waitomo Valley were Polynesians from the Moa Hunter culture.
The Moa hunters were largely coastal people who lacked the agricultural base and settled existence of the later classic Maori.
There is evidence of them having ventured into the valley but none of permanent habitation.
By 1400 AD the Ngati Maniapoto, descended from the Tainui people at Kawhia, were settling in the Waitomo area. Like others of their time they were skilled gardeners, making extensive use of the area's sheltered valleys and volcanic soils for the cultivation of kumara.
They also made good use of the plant and animal life in the surrounding forests. To protect these resources from invaders, they built a succession of fortified redoubt or pa.
These pa or fortified villages were built on hill tops or other features with natural defensive strength.
The period of occupation at any given site was usually dependent on the availability of food and fire wood.
Once these resources had been exhausted the site was usually abandoned. Alternatively a site may be abandon as a result of military conquest.
Occasionally sites were re-occupied after a lengthy period. While others were converted to urupa (burial grounds) or abandoned permanently.
Opapaka Pa with its adjoining kainga was formally occupied by the Ngati Hia from the east coast of the North Island, who were part of a second major migration into the area in the 1700's.
Opapaka like other sites has been modified by erosion resulting from farming and land clearance.
The pa, along with the adjoining terraced gardens, storage pits and other evidence of a once thriving community are not now easily distinguished from the natural features of the landscape.
By standing atop the Opapaka Pa and looking to the north west and then turning around to the north east one can see a number of ancient fortifications and other sites of cultural significance including the distant mountain ranges of Rangitoto, Mangatautori, and in the far distant Ngaruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu all of which had considerable cultural significance to the Maori people.
In the valley at the base of the main access ridge in the right light one can see the remaining evidence of the papa kaianga associated with the Opapaka Pa..
To the Maori the forest was more than a vast natural store house which provided for their every need. It was a living entity, home of gods, and mythological beings.
Before entering the forest or taking from its vast natural bounty one would first recite a karakia and obtain permission of the forest guardians as well as making some form of offering.
Paramount in this procedure would be the gaining of the approval of Tane-mahuta (the god of the forest) as well as that of Ranginui-e-tu-nei) the sky father and Papatuanuku (the earth mother).
It was also important to be mindful of the rule of rahui and tapu as well as tribal boundaries. Failure to take heed of these could have serious consequences at both the individual and tribal levels.
In this particular situation a rahui usually took the form of a conservation covenant designed to allow the regeneration of a particular plant or animal resource.
A tapu tended to be a much more severe, and sometimes permanent.
The flowering and fruiting of a particular plant or tree related to specific months on the Maori calendar or acted as an indicator of forthcoming drought or other seasonal extremes.
Such changes also provided information about suitable times for harvesting of natural plant and animal resources as well as the planting and harvesting of cultivated crops.
Forest plants, like animals, were also a source for inspiration of design, song and oral tradition.
A handful of wild forest species such as titoki, ti kouka (cabbage tree), and harakeke (flax) were deliberately cultivated to a limited degree as a ready source of raw material which might not otherwise be available, for example, the importation to Mayor Island and other remote localities of flax plants.
Titoki trees often grown in close proximity to a village, provided a ready source of berries from which a highly prized oil was extracted.
Some plants had more than one Maori name, in fact, some had as many as five for the same species.
These varied in accordance with tribal and geographical factors.
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