The Discovery and First Settlement of Aotearoa New Zealand


The islands of New Zealand were the last lands colonised by humans. The Polynesian voyagers are now believed to have arrived barely seven centuries ago.

The first settlements of New Zealand are shrouded in myth and mystery. The part that creation stories and genealogies play in Maori traditions has contributed to that, as have subsequent European studies. Modern science has helped to advance theories of Polynesian migration to Aotearoa as the first settlers called the islands, and now a more complete picture is available than ever before.

Hawaiki – Place of Maori Origin

Early Maori had no written language and their ancestry was recorded through an oral history that lent itself to great myths and legends. One story is strong throughout Maoridom – the significance of Hawaiki as the ancestral home. Hawaiki is where the people came from, and where they will return to on their deaths. A place of mystery and mythology though it clearly is, Hawaiki’s physical location has exercised the minds of generations of Maori.

The vagueness of Hawaiki’s location also challenged European scholars who began studying Maori traditions and culture in the late 19th century. British colonisation gave rise to the very questions of place for Maori in New Zealand. Who were they, where they had come from and had they been the first people to inhabit Aotearoa? S. Percy Smith set about developing a history of early New Zealand that would prevail in the general view as late as the 1970’s. Smith’s ideas have since proven to be fanciful and largely wrong.

The Great Fleet of Canoes

Smith established a timeframe for Maori settlement by putting the genealogies into a stream of successions. By then allocating 25 years to each generation, Smith calculated a first generation settler date of around 1350. As it happens that date is not significantly at variance with subsequent findings, but Smith went further. His Maori colonisers all arrived on a ‘great fleet’ of seven canoes, as if colonisation was one big coordinated project.

According to Smith, the ancestral leader Kupe visited New Zealand around 750AD, followed 300 years later by Toi and Whatonga, who found it inhabited by primitive people – the Moriori. Those earliest voyages had been explorations, the gathering of information that the ‘great fleet’ would use for later settlement. Smith also published findings that Hawaiki was in central Polynesia or further west, with oral histories pointing as far as Indonesia for placement of the mythical land.

Scientific Evidence for Maori Arrivals

Archaeological finds in the 20th century challenged Smith’s work, and further study found his calculations showed variations in generational timeframes. It seemed Smith had been selective about his sources, and if a genealogy didn’t suit his theory he tended to ignore it. During the 20th century a succession of academics attacked Smith’s theories on a number of fronts, but it took time to develop conclusive alternatives. The development of radiocarbon dating and then DNA analysis gave the theorists the evidence they needed.

Today, the best scientific studies indicate that the first Maori arrived in New Zealand in the late 13th century. There are indications of human activity immediately above the ash layer thrown out by the Tarawera eruption of 1314 ± 12 years (the Kaharoa ash), but no artefacts or other evidence below it. This dating is consistent with New Zealand’s biggest archaeological site on the Wairau Bar. There numerous human bones have been unearthed, the oldest dated to around 1300.

Analysis of buried pollen shows significant changes in vegetation also around 1300, but nothing that could be attributed to humans before that time. A change from forestation to open-land plants such as bracken fern and scrub, with a corresponding increase in charcoal at the same time, indicates when settlers began clearing forests for cultivation.

The Kiore, or Pacific Rat

This animal is a poor swimmer and could not have arrived in New Zealand without human help. There is evidence in gnawed seeds and fossilised snail shells that rats only started consuming these foods around 1300.

Rat bones have however been carbon dated to as early as 50AD, and this has raised conjecture about the whole issue of first habitation. There are several theories as to why such apparently old rat bones have been unearthed, and debate is ongoing on the issue. Rat bones have been found not only below the Kaharoa ash, but also below the 232 Taupo eruption ash layer. There is also a question over the origins of the kiore, as DNA sampling suggests rats came from both southeastern and central Polynesia

Where did the Maoris Come From?

Archaeological evidence now points to the Southern Cook and Society Islands as the homelands of the first Maori people. This is based on female DNA sampling and artefacts found at Wairau Bar that are much like those of the islands to the northeast.

Moriori were the first inhabitants of the Chatham Islands. They are now understood to be people of Maori stock, who voyaged eastwards to settle the islands they called Rekohu around 500 years ago. There they developed their own culture in isolation for 300 years. Kupe figures in Maori tradition, but in stories that date back no further than the 15th century, and there is no evidence he reached New Zealand before the first settlers. Toi and Whatonga are now considered effectively constructions of S. Percy Smith.

Whatever current thinking is on New Zealand’s original habitation, there is no doubt that Aotearoa was the last inhabitable land mass settled by humans on their great trek out of Africa. New Zealand’s national tourism organisation markets the country with the catchphrase – Welcome to the Youngest Country on Earth.


  1. Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, Maori Peoples of New Zealand, Nga Iwi o Aotearoa, David Bateman, Auckland 2006