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Story: Death rates and life expectancy

In the 18th century Māori life expectancy was similiar to Western Europe, but it fell dramatically after Pākehā brought new diseases to New Zealand. By the late 1870s Pākehā could expect to live into their 50s – one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Māori lagged far behind, but the gap between Māori and Pākehā has narrowed over time.

Story by Ian Pool
Main image: Large Pākehā family, 1870s

Story Summary

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Changing causes of death

In many countries, deaths from infections such as measles, smallpox and tuberculosis have declined. There are fewer childhood deaths, and people live longer. They die from diseases associated with old age or lifestyle, such as cancer and heart disease.

This change started for Pākehā in the 19th century, and for Māori in the 20th century.

Pākehā life expectancy

In the 19th century Pākehā settlers had lower death rates from infectious diseases, and lived longer, than people in Britain. This may have been due to their better diet and higher standard of living. Also, settlements were dispersed around the country, so infections were less likely to spread. In the late 1870s Pākehā women in New Zealand were the first group in the world to have a life expectancy of 55.

Pākehā life expectancy continued to increase. The population reached 60,000 in 1860 – about the same as the Māori population. From then on it grew quickly, while numbers of Māori declined.

In 2006 life expectancy was 83 for non-Māori women and 79 for non-Māori men.

Impact of colonisation on Māori

In the late 1700s Māori life expectancy was probably about 30 – similiar to that of people in Western Europe. But Europeans brought new diseases to New Zealand. Māori had no immunity to measles, mumps, tuberculosis and whooping cough, so death rates increased. The loss of Māori land to settlers meant that many tribes were reduced to poverty. People lived in cramped, unhygienic conditions, which made disease more likely to spread. Māori life expectancy fell to 25 for men and 23 for women in 1891.

Children’s death rates were very high. In the 1890s a quarter of Māori girls died before nine months of age, and half died before they were seven. Few girls lived long enough to have children.

The Māori population fell – from around 100,000 in 1769, to 42,000 at its lowest point in 1896.

Māori recovery

From the later 1890s Māori life expectancy increased, and the population grew. People gained more immunity to European diseases, and hygiene and living conditions improved. However, poverty, overcrowding and malnutrition made Māori vulnerable to epidemics, and life expectancy was still much lower than for Pākehā.

After the Second World War many Māori moved to towns and cities, where there was better health care. Māori incomes rose and living conditions improved. Māori also benefited from health and social policies. Life expectancy increased, and became closer to that of Pākehā. In 2006 it was still lower than Pākehā – 75 for women and 70 for men.

How to cite this page:

Ian Pool, 'Death rates and life expectancy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/death-rates-and-life-expectancy (accessed 20 November 2017)

Story by Ian Pool, published 5 May 2011