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date: 21 May 2024

Māori arrival and settlement

Dictionary Plus History
Rebecca LenihanRebecca Lenihan

Māori arrival and settlement 

In Māori oral tradition, the first Māori sailed to New Zealand from Hawaiki, the place were Io, the supreme being, created the world and its first people, the place from which each person comes and where each will return after death. Kupe is attributed with the discovery of New Zealand, when he chased a great octopus that belonged to his competitor from Hawaiki to Cook Strait, the body of water that runs between the North and South Islands. The Māori name for New Zealand, Aotearoa, ‘long white cloud’, is said to have been given to the islands by Kupe’s wife, Kuramārōtini, upon seeing the North Island for the first time.

Many years after Kupe’s discovery of New Zealand, several waka (canoes) made the trip to New Zealand from Hawaiki. Māori whakapapa (genealogical links) go back to these waka, serving as the origins of the tribes of New Zealand and defining their relationships with other tribes. For example many tribes trace their origin to the Tainui waka, while tribes such as Te Arawa take their name directly from a founding canoe. When identifying themselves, Māori mention their founding waka first and foremost.

Archaeological and recent scientific evidence suggests that Māori first discovered and settled in New Zealand sometime between 1250 and 1300 ad, on deliberate voyages of discovery, navigating by ocean currents, the winds, and the stars. These settlers were likely from various islands within Polynesia and did not identify themselves with a collective name until the arrival of Europeans, at which time they adopted the name Māori to differentiate themselves from the new arrivals.

Oral tradition and archaeological evidence suggests that many of these early waka landed on the east coast of the North Island. Whangaparāoa on the eastern tip of the Bay of Plenty is reported as the landing place of many waka. These waka explored the coastline, scouting for land suitable for settlement, and there is evidence that by c.1400 all of New Zealand had been explored. Early settlements tended to be at harbours or the mouths of rivers where there was good access to fresh water and fishing. Hunting was a major source of food, with fur seals and moa the primary prey.

While hunting and gathering remained the main mode of survival among tribes that settled in the cooler climate of the South Island, horticulture developed more quickly among those in the North Island. The early settlers had brought with them kūmara (sweet potato) and yams which grew well in the warmer climate of the North Island. Along with these developments Māori moved inland, becoming less dependant on resources from the sea to survive. Although warfare was widespread, it tended to be episodic, and Māori lived in unprotected settlements or seasonal camps rather than in fortified pā.

Rebecca Lenihan