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Māori Arrival in Aotearoa

Future Protection of Ahuahu
Archaeology on Ahuahu Great Mercury Island

Māori are the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand. They settled here over 700 years ago. Māori came from Polynesia by waka.

New Zealand has a shorter human history than any other country. Experts think the first people came from East Polynesia in about the year 1300.

It was not until 1642 that Europeans knew Aotearoa existed. The first Polynesian settlers discovered New Zealand on planned exploration voyages. They navigated by the stars, ocean currents, and the winds.

Traditions tell of the legendary navigator, Kupe, who discovered Aotearoa New Zealand. Each iwi has its own story about waka arrivals and where they journeyed. People here did not identify themselves by one name until the arrival of Europeans. Then they started using the name Māori, meaning ‘ordinary’.

Hunting, gathering and gardening

Māori were expert hunters and fishers. They wove fishing nets and traps from harakeke and other plants. They shaped fishhooks from bone, shell and wood. Māori also hunted native birds using snares and spears.

Māori created gardens and grew vegetables from Polynesia such as kūmara, hue, taro and yam. They also ate native plants, roots and berries. Kete were used to carry food, which was often stored in a pātaka or in the ground in kōpiha/rua kūmara.

Early people lived in small hunting groups. Seals and moa are the most visible items in archaeological middens, but birds, fish and shellfish were also in the Māori diet. Moa were extinct by about AD 1450. Kuri and kiore were also brought here by waka. Domestic pigs and chickens were either not brought or did not survive the journey.


Māori quickly adapted to life in New Zealand. Their life expectancy was similar to that of Europeans at that time (about 35-40 years of age). Māori population before European contact was maybe 100,000.

An oral culture

Māori passed on rich and detailed history and legends orally. Society was organised around groups that traced their descent from common ancestors. Reciting whakapapa was and still is an important way to communicate knowledge. Whakapapa links people, ancestors, relationships and provides a connection to the land. It shapes a person’s character and informs them about how they should live.


The concepts of mana and utu were strong in Māori culture. This led to regular disputes. Conflicts usually only lasted for short periods of time. To protect themselves from an attack Māori would construct . Pā were in places easy to defend, on hills or headlands. They were well built with ditches and banks and a palisade on top to protect its people from enemies. Today, many pā sites can be seen in the North Island but are rare in the South Island.

Māori mostly lived in simpler settlements near seasonal food.

Craft and trade

Early Māori were skilled at wood carving, including them in buildings and waka. They shaped stone into tools such as adzes and ornaments. When Europeans arrived Māori traded food and tools for a range of European goods like iron and cloth.

How does Ahuahu Great Mercury Island fit in to the picture?

Ahuahu Great Mercury Island is historically significant because it is one of the first areas of Māori landfall and settlement in Aotearoa.

Captain Cook did not see Ahuahu in 1769 as the Endeavour sailed past but he did visit nearby Mercury Bay. Cook's visit here over 12 days in November 1769 was seen as a friendly encounter. He received the very first pōwhiri for a European in Ngāti Hei’s Wharetaewa pā.

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Māori settled in New Zealand over 700 years ago. They came from Polynesia by waka. This is a painting by Sydney Parkinson, an artist aboard Captain Cook's first voyage to New Zealand. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

Traditions tell of the legendary navigator, Kupe, who discovered Aotearoa New Zealand. This is a statue of Kupe with his wife, Hine Te Apārangi, and his tohunga (priest), Pekahourangi. Image: Shelley Hersey, LEARNZ.

Māori became expert hunters and fishermen. This image is from a diorama at the Canterbury Museum. Image: Public domain.

Māori created gardens and grew vegetables which they brought from Polynesia. These included the kūmara (sweet potato), hue (bottle gourd), taro and yam. Image: Wikimedia, Michal Klajban.

The Polynesian dog (kuri) and rat (kiore) were also brought to Aotearoa by waka. Pictured is a dog jaw bone found during an archaeological dig on Ahuahu Great Mercury Island. Image: Louise Furey.

This photo shows a model of a pā which is a fortified Māori village. Pā were located in easy to defend locations such as on hills or headlands. Image: Public Domain.

Early Māori were skilled at wood carving. These replica pūtōrino and pūtātara (flutes and conch shell trumpets) are from a display at the Nelson Provincial Museum. Image: Shelley Hersey, LEARNZ.

Future Protection of Ahuahu
Archaeology on Ahuahu Great Mercury Island