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Takiroa Rock Art Shelter


Takiroa Rock Art Shelter (c. 1400-1900)

Window on a lost world

North Otago and South Canterbury have the lion’s share of New Zealand’s rock art sites. Half a millennium ago the valley of the Waitaki River was a well-trodden seasonal hunting and fishing route. Takiroa occupied a strategic position, offering advance warning of the approach of strangers or bad weather. The conspicuous limestone caves and overhangs also gave welcome shelter on cold southern nights, a fact still appreciated by sheep and cattle.

No one knows who first daubed charcoal and red ochre on these walls. The images range from abstract forms to bird and animal life and people. The presence of bones from moa and the extinct quail suggest that they started early. There may have been a long break in continuity, because 19th-century Ngāi Tahu said that they did not know who had put the work there. Depictions of European sailing ships and animals, however, suggest that someone revived the tradition. Takiroa is a remarkable record of a vanished world. As the conservation plan states, ‘regardless of the precise dates of this chain of events, … the landscape in which Takiroa stands, and which was familiar to the people who created this artwork, may have undergone major change a few hundred years ago. Massive deforestation caused by fires, probably mainly human-induced, ravaged the South Island East Coast and produced the familiar landscape we erroneously think timeless.’

People and livestock have also ravaged places such as Takiroa. It lost some drawings during the First World War when J.L. Elmore extracted them for museums. The fences that went up in 1930 and again in 1964 deterred neither people nor stock. In the 1990s the former Historic Places Trust re-fenced and interpreted the site, by then an historic reserve. There are two ‘galleries’, with the older material in the larger one to the left, post-contact era drawings in the overhang to the right. Ngāi Tahu, who invaded the south in the 18th century, now manage Takiroa.

Further information

This site is item number 5 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.

On the ground

The Takiroa site is professionally interpreted and is accessed by a paved footpath.



  • Paul Thompson, Maori rock art, GP Books, Wellington, 1989
  • Michael Trotter and Beverley McCulloch, Prehistoric rock art in New Zealand, Longman Paul, Auckland, 1981

Text: Gavin McLean, 2013

Main image: Natalia V (Flickr)

Second image: Natalia V (Flickr)

Third and fourth images: Gavin McLean

Historic sketch:

Alexander Turnbull Library
Reference: E-332-022
Artist: Walter Baldock Durrant Mantell
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any reuse of this image.

How to cite this page

Takiroa Rock Art Shelter, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated