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Māori Arrival in Aotearoa

Polynesian Navigation
European Discovery of New Zealand

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

New Zealand has a shorter human history than any other country.

Māori traditions tell of the navigator, Kupe, who discovered Aotearoa New Zealand navigating by:

  • ocean currents
  • winds
  • stars.

It was not until 1642 that Europeans found New Zealand.

Hunting, gathering and growing

Māori were expert:

  • hunters
  • fishermen

They also:

  • gathered food
  • grew vegetables from Polynesia
  • transported food
  • stored food
  • cooked food

For fishing, Māori:

  • wove fishing nets from harakeke - flax
  • carved fishhooks from bone and stone

When hunting Māori caught native birds using a wide range of traps and snares. The early settlers lived in small groups living mostly off seals and moa, until moa were extinct.


Birds, fish and shellfish were important in the Māori diet. The Polynesian dog and rat (kiore) were also brought here. Domestic pigs and chickens were not brought or did not survive the journey from the Pacific Islands.


Māori quickly adapted to life in New Zealand and lived on average to 30-35 years of age, the same as Europeans. The Māori population, before Europeans arrived in New Zealand, could have been as high as 100,000.

Oral culture

Māori passed on history and legends orally. Reciting whakapapa (genealogies) was and still is an important way to share knowledge. Whakapapa links people, ancestors, relationships and connection to the land.


The concepts of mana (status) and utu were strong in Māori culture. Although this led to wars, they usually lasted for only short periods of time. To protect themselves from being attacked by other iwi, Māori built pā (fortified villages).

Māori also lived for part of the year in seasonal camps that were unprotected.

Craft and trade 

Early Māori were skilled carvers of:

  • wood
  • stone
  • bone

Māori traded food, tools and stone ornaments with early European whalers and sealers.

Ready for a quiz? Try the "Māori Arrival in Aotearoaactivity.

Audio Māori keywords: 

Can you find out more about where Māori came from before arriving in New Zealand?

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

This photo shows a model of a pā which is a fortified Māori village. Image: Public Domain.

Te Parapara traditional kumara garden in the Hamilton Gardens shows how Māori grew kumara in mounds to improve drainage. Image: Wikimedia, Michal Klajban.

Polynesian Navigation
European Discovery of New Zealand