Archaeological evidence of the first Polynesians to arrive in New Zealand is very meagre, but most authorities agree that they landed some time between A.D. 500 and 1000 (some believe they arrived even before A.D. 500). As to their origin, the study of adze types strongly suggests the Society Group of islands as the Hawaiki (or homeland) of the New Zealand Maori, and South-east Asia as the original home of the Polynesians. (This theory is supported by traditional evidence and by language similarities.)
These first New Zealanders are called moa-hunters by archaeologists because of their association with this bird. (The term “Archaic” is used in some accounts.) They hunted the moa for food and used its bones to make some of their tools and ornaments. Moa eggshells were placed in ceremonial burials. These people were apparently peaceful, for no weapons belonging to them have yet been found. Most sites of the moa-hunter period so far discovered are situated on the coast, usually near a river mouth. Such sites occur at Opito (Coromandel), Waingongoro (South Taranaki), Paremata (Wellington), Wairau Bar and Kaikoura (Marlborough), Hurunui, Redcliffs, and Rakaia (Canterbury), Waitaki, Awamoa, Shag River, Murdering Beach, Pounawea, and Papatowai (Otago), and on Stewart Island. Some inland sites are also known (e.g., Hawkesburn, in Central Otago). Although concentrated along the east coast of the South Island, moa-hunter sites are more widespread than is generally realised; the above is not a complete list and more sites are being discovered and investigated each year.
With the virtual extinction of the moa about A.D. 1500, the moa hunter camps were abandoned, the occupants apparently turning to a fishing economy (judging from the increase in fish and shellfish remains found in their middens, or refuse heaps). This period, provisionally termed “Intermediate”, is complex and little understood. In some localities moa-hunter artefacts occur with moa bones; in others the artefacts are of moa-hunter type, but moa bones are absent, or there is a distinct break between typical moa-hunter and classic Maori occupations.
The classic Maori culture was that encountered by the early explorers and the first settlers. From the archaeologist's point of view it is characterised by large earthwork fortifications (pa), by tools and ornaments differing from those of the moa-hunters, and by the development of wood carving. All these cultures (moa hunter, “Intermediate”, and Classic Maori) are, however, generally considered to belong to the one people, the Maori.
The first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand have left their mark in the archaeological record; trading beads, crockery, mirrors, nails, and pieces of iron turn up quite often in late Maori occupation layers. The period of late intertribal and Maori-European warfare is also of interest to archaeologists; “gunfighting pa” occur in several areas, e.g., Te Kooti's Te Porere pa (National Park). It is here that archaeology and history meet.