Archaeology is the study of earlier peoples through the cultural materials (artefacts) and other signs of habitation they have left behind them. It is a relatively new science in New Zealand, having evolved from the activities of historians, museum anthropologists, students of Maori lore, and private “fossickers” and collectors of artefacts. The museums in the main centres were the first to conduct extensive archaeological investigations, followed later by the departments of anthropology in the Auckland and Otago Universities. The few professional archaeologists in New Zealand today are employed by these institutions. In 1955 the Archaeological Association of New Zealand was formed, with the aims of coordinating archaeological research in New Zealand, keeping members informed of progress in other areas, and promoting public interest and understanding.
Early theories of New Zealand's pre-history owed as much to the study of Maori tradition as they did to archaeological techniques. Interest arose in the mid-nineteenth century by the discovery of moa bones in association with human remains. Many sites were investigated (rather haphazardly from the modern point of view) and several theories of the association of moa and man put forward. Sir Julius von Haast believed that the moas were exterminated by a race of people whom he called the “Moa-hunters” and who long preceded the Maori. His opponents held that the moa hunters were identical with the Maori, and that their remains did not predate the arrival of the Great Fleet of 1350 (this date being derived solely from traditional evidence). Early in this century Elsdon Best and S. Percy Smith suggested that the moa hunters were of Melanesian origin, but this theory was discredited in the 1920s and 1930s.