Story: First peoples in Māori tradition

Among Māori tribes there are many oral traditions about ancient peoples and gods who inhabited New Zealand from the beginning of time. From the gods of the natural world to the mysterious people of the mountains and the Polynesian explorer Kupe, stories of the ancestors have been handed down through the generations. They are the bedrock of a deep connection with the land.

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal
Main image: Carving depicting links to Hawaiki, from Te Hono ki Hawaiki marae in Te Papa museum, Wellington

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Linking the people to the land

Many Māori traditions tell of the Polynesian settlers from Hawaiki, who reached the coast in canoes about 700 years ago. But there are also myths and legends of earlier beings, such as the first human to be created. Through these stories, tribes can trace a long relationship with the land, and with the different regions they live in.


In tradition, Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother) were the parents of Tāne. Tāne made the first woman from the soil, naming her Hineahuone. One story says ‘the arms, the body, the limbs, the thighs, these all took shape and the skeleton was complete’. With Tāne she had a daughter, Hinetītama, later known as Hine-nui-te-pō, who is seen in the dawn and in the setting sun. It is said that all human beings are descended from these ancestors.


The trickster demigod Māui is said to have dragged the North Island from the ocean, using the jawbone of his grandmother as a hook. The Māori name for the island is Te Ika-a-Māui (Māui’s fish). The many other stories about Māui tell of the theft of fire, the capture of the sun and the pursuit of immortality.

Ancestors from the natural world

Māori people believed that they were related to the natural world – the earth, the birds, the trees. The Ngāi Tūhoe tribe believe that their ancestor was Hine-pūkohu-rangi, the maiden of the mist that swirled around the Urewera mountains.

Patupaiarehe and tūrehu

There are many accounts of mysterious people who were already in New Zealand when Polynesian voyagers arrived by canoe. It is said that they lived high in the mountains, and could be heard calling to each other. Two of these groups were known as the patupaiarehe and the tūrehu.


In many traditions, Kupe was the first Polynesian to discover New Zealand. He chased a great octopus across the ocean in his canoe, and finally killed it at Cook Strait. Kupe explored the country and named many places, such as Pari Whero (Red Rocks), on the Wellington coast.


In some traditions the ancestor Toitehuatahi arrived from Hawaiki, and in others he was born in New Zealand. Tribes are proud to claim they are descended from Toi, and the Ngāti Awa people say his village overlooked the Bay of Plenty, near present-day Whakatāne.

How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'First peoples in Māori tradition', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 8 February 2005