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First peoples in Māori tradition

by  Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal

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.

Framework of the traditions

New Zealand’s Māori tribes have a fund of narratives about people and beings who existed long before the arrival of Polynesian settlers by canoe. This collective knowledge is central to the experience and identity of the tangata whenua – the people of the land.

Canoe arrivals

Tribal traditions speak of the arrival of Polynesian ancestors on board numerous waka (canoes). These ocean-going vessels had sails and outriggers, and some had two keels. After landing at various points along the coastline, the Polynesian explorers founded the communities that gave rise to the tribes of today.

Recent work in archaeology, linguistics and anthropology has broadened understanding of Māori settlement by canoe from Polynesia, pointing to a history of about 700 years.

Pre-canoe stories

In addition to the stories about the arrival of the Polynesian canoes, there are many accounts, handed down through the generations, of peoples and identities who lived in New Zealand before the Polynesian settlers arrived. These narratives have flowed into the tribal traditions.

It is possible to show a layering of stories that deepen the connection between the various tribes and the land. The stories are organised in a genealogical framework:

  • Hineahuone – the first human, made from the soil of the earth.
  • Māui – the mythical character who ‘fished up’ the North Island, which is known as Te Ika-a-Māui (Māui’s fish). The South Island was his canoe and Stewart Island his anchor stone.
  • Ancestors from the natural world. Ngāti Whātua traditions tell of the Tuputupu-whenua, who grew from the ground. And Ngāi Tūhoe, of the Urewera mountains, trace descent from Hine-pūkohu-rangi, the ‘mist maiden’. This inspired the 19th-century ethnologist Elsdon Best to dub the Tūhoe people ‘the children of the mist’.
  • The patupaiarehe and tūrehu – living in secluded mountains, they are said to be the first tangata whenua (people of the land).
  • Kupe and Toitehuatahi – explorers who are among the important pre-canoe ancestors. It is said that Kupe was the first Polynesian to arrive in this country. Toitehuatahi is the ancestor from whom most tribes trace descent, and on whom subsequent tribal rights and interests were based.

Connection with the land

Beginning with the birth of Hineahuone from the earth, tribal narratives describe and illustrate a deep and fundamental connection with the land. They are the base upon which later tribal interests flourished. They ensure longevity of tenure and a sense of ancestral authority and history for those who follow.

Tāne, Hineahuone and Hine

There are numerous stories about the emergence of human beings from the natural environment. They begin with Ranginui (the sky) and Papatūānuku (the earth), who are the parents of Tāne, the progenitor of humankind. Some versions say that mankind descends from Tūmatauenga, another child of earth and sky.

Tāne is a celebrated figure. Among his many feats was the creation of a woman from the soil at Kurawaka. Her name was Hineahuone (the female element who comes from the soil). Hineahuone and Tāne had a daughter named Hinetītama, who also became known as Hinenui-i-te-pō. As Hinetītama, she became the custodian of the threshold between night and day, darkness and light. Hine is seen both in the morning with the birth of sunlight, and in the evening with the setting sun. It is said that these are the ancestors of human kind.

Here is an extract from a story about how Hineahuone was made:

Tāne called out, ‘We are seeking the path to woman. This is what we are doing.’ They replied, ‘Go to the soil at Kurawaka, there to go about your work. There the woman can be found, untouched, select and sacred, for she possesses the essence of humankind.’ So they went and arrived at the soil of Kurawaka. The bones took shape and then the head. The arms, the body, the limbs, the thighs, these all took shape and the skeleton was complete … 1
  1. S. Percy Smith, The lore of the whare-wananga, vol. 1. New Plymouth: T. Avery for the Polynesian Society, 1913, p. 34. › Back


Māui is the great trickster hero of Polynesian mythology. Much pre-European Polynesian history is related to this inventive character. Many of the stories are legendary – the theft of fire, the capture of the sun, the pursuit of immortality, the descent into the underworld in search of his father.

A central story about Māui tells of how he fished up the North Island of New Zealand. The South Island is referred to as Te Waka-a-Māui, or Māui’s canoe. Rakiura (Stewart Island) is the canoe’s anchor stone and it is said that Māui stood at the peninsula at Kaikōura while he hauled up his prized catch.

Basis for settlement

Such events are of great importance in the world view these traditions express. The tribal traditions which cite descent from or a relationship with Māui provide a basis for settlement in New Zealand. Descent from Māui is a starting point for tribal tenure of the land.

Māui and his fish

The following story was written by the Ngāti Porou tohunga, Mohi Ruatapu. It begins with Māui fetching the jawbone of his grandmother Muri-ranga-whenua to use as a fish hook. He then goes fishing with his reluctant older brothers. Mohi continues:

…his bait was his nose; he punched it, the blood ran down, and he smeared it on the jawbone of his grandparent Muri-ranga-whenua. By the time the jawbone reached the bottom, his fish had bitten on it. Then the canoe was lifted up and its bow was pushed down. His elder brothers cried out in fear … Then his fish came to the surface …That fish continues to lie here as land. It is still inhabited by Māui, his elder brothers and their children. This is the origin of the presence of the Māori ancestors in this island. 1
  1. Nga korero a Mohi Ruatapu, tohunga rongonui o Ngati Porou: the writings of Mohi Ruatapu. Ed. and trans. Anaru Reedy. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1993, p. 123. › Back

Ancestors from the natural world

Many environmental phenomena are considered to be ancestors of humankind, taking on human qualities and names. For example, in some stories Tānerore is the sun, who has two wives – Hinetakurua (winter maiden) with whom he spends winter, and Hineraumati (summer maiden) with whom he spends his summers. Similarly, Hineruhi is the quality of light at dawn and Hinemoana is the sea-maiden, progenitor of fishes and of clement seas.

Every aspect of existence was considered in this manner – earth, sea and sky were imbued with mana, qualities and identities that the people shared an intimate relationship with. Later interpretations of this view of the world are that it was the projection of human qualities onto the natural world. In 1923 Ira Tahu, of Ngāti Porou, commented, ‘What our ancestors did was to consider the essential aspects of the world and to relate to them as if they were human. That is, they created names for these things as if they were human.’ 1

Linking people and nature

This organic world view enabled people to imagine themselves as their counterparts in the natural world, such as a tree, a rock or a fish. There are many examples of identifying with birds – wearing cloaks made from feathers, singing like a bird, or comparing meetings on a marae to the gathering of birds. The following is an extract from a Te Tai Tokerau chant welcoming visitors to the marae:

Nau mai e taku manu, he manu aha ka tau?
Kūaka mārangaranga ki te tāhuna
Korimako pae ki te kōtātara
Pīwaiwaka i kutia ai te mate
Kōtuku rerenga tahi.
Welcome, my bird, what is this bird that has arrived?
Flocks of godwits ascend from the seashore
The bellbird alights upon a perch
The fantail who draws up death
The white heron in single flight (rarely seen).

Tribal accounts

Some tribes have unique traditions about their origins in nature. Perhaps the most well-known is that of the Ngāi Tūhoe people, said to descend from the mist of the Urewera Ranges. Known as Hine-pūkohu-rangi, the mist is described as a tipuna (ancestor). From the union of Hine-pūkohu-rangi with Te Maunga (the mountain) came Pōtiki, a human who was the ancestor of Tūhoe, the founder of the tribe.

Tumutumu-whenua (or Tuputupu-whenua) of the Te Tai Tokerau peoples is said to have emerged from under the ground. Similarly, according to tradition the Whanganui people were born from Ruapehu mountain, and it is said the Awanuiarangi tribes (Te Āti Awa and Ngāti Awa) descend from a spirit living in the sky.

  1. Nga korero a Reweti Kohere ma, ed. Wiremu and Te Ohorere Kaa. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1994, pp. 42–44. › Back

Patupaiarehe, tūrehu and other inhabitants

The following story was written by Hoani Nahe, a Ngāti Maru (Hauraki) elder of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He writes graphically of a people called the patupaiarehe and the tūrehu, who inhabited the land prior to the arrival of the Polynesian peoples.

Now listen. When the migration arrived here they found people living in the land – Ngati Kura, Ngati Korakorako and Ngati Turehu, all hapu or sub-tribes of the people called Patupaiarehe. The chiefs of this people were named Tahurangi, Whanawhana, Nukupori, Tuku, Ripiroaitu, Tapu-te-uru and Te Rangipouri. The dwelling places of these people were on the sharp peaks of the high mountains – those in the district of Hauraki (Thames) are Moehau mountain (Cape Colville), Motutere (Castle Hill, Coromandel), Maumaupaki, Whakairi, Kaitarakihi, Te Koronga, Horehore, Whakaperu, Te Aroha-a-uta, Te Aroha-a-tai, and lastly Pirongia, at Waikato. The pa, villages, and houses of this people are not visible, nor actually to be seen by mortal (Tangata Maori) eyes – that is, their actual forms. But sometimes some forms are seen, though not actually known to be these people … Sometimes this people is met with by the Maori people in the forests, and they are heard conversing and calling out, as they pass along, but at the same time they never meet face to face, or so that they mutually see one another, but the voices are heard in conversation or shouting, but the people are never actually seen.
On some occasions also, during the night, they are heard paddling their canoes … At such times are heard these questions: ‘What is it?’ ‘Who are the people who were heard urging forward their canoes on the sea during the night?’ or, ‘Who were heard conversing and shouting in the forest?’ The answer would be as follows: ‘They were not Tangata Maori, they were atua, Patupaiarehe, Turehu, or Korakorako.’ 1
  1. Hoani Nahe, ‘Maori, Tangata Maori.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 3 (1894): 27–35. › Back


According to some tribal narratives, Kupe was the first Polynesian to discover the islands of New Zealand. His journey there was triggered by difficulties with fishing in Hawaiki, his homeland. Apparently the problem was a great octopus belonging to Kupe’s competitor, Muturangi. Kupe set out in his canoe to kill the octopus, and such was the length of the pursuit that it brought him to New Zealand. With a companion known as Ngake (or Ngahue) in another canoe called Tāwhirirangi, he pursued the creature all the way to Cook Strait (known as Raukawakawa), where it was finally destroyed.

Kupe’s locations

The arrival of Kupe is of great importance, and many tribes are at pains to cite a relationship to him. It is said that his wife, Kuramārōtini, devised the name of Ao-tea-roa (‘long white cloud’) on seeing the North Island for the first time. Like Māui before him, Kupe’s arrival is a foothold in the land for Māori. His adventures took place predominantly in the south Wairarapa, Cook Strait and Northland regions. However, in some versions he travelled as far south as Arahura on the South Island’s West Coast, and to the Coromandel Peninsula. Taputapu-ātea and Te Whitianga-o-Kupe, for example, commemorate Kupe’s time in Hauraki.

A Cook Strait story

As with many important traditions, there are several versions, particularly in the Cook Strait region and in the north. In an account narrated by a man named Te Whetu of Te Āti Awa to the ethnographer Elsdon Best, Kupe travels down the west coast from the Auckland region to Taranaki, and then to the Cook Strait region. Here his two birds, which he had brought from Hawaiki, set off to the South Island to survey the new lands. One, a cormorant named Te Kawau-a-Toru, becomes ensnared at Te Aumiti, a narrow stretch of water off Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island):

Te Kawau-a-Toru proceeded … he put one of his wings into the water and the other was above but he did not have a sound footing … Friend! The wing broke … and Kupe’s champion perished. 1

The breaking of the wing formed the passage (now known as French Pass) through which vessels can sail, while the unharmed wing remains an obstruction. The rocky reef is known as Te Kawau-a-Toru.

Returning to Hawaiki

Stories of Kupe are also held in the north. In an account by Ngāpuhi elder Himiona Kāmira, describing Kupe’s return to Hawaiki from Hokianga,

Time arrived for Kupe to return to Hawaiki … [He left] Tuputupu-whenua as a spring for Hokianga. On the morning of his departure, he took his son (Tuputupu-whenua) to the … spring … He bade farewell by saying, ‘Farewell, The Spring in the World of Light. I now return, I will never return.’ With Kupe’s farewells completed he despatched his son into the spring called The Spring in the World of Light. He instantly turned into a taniwha. This is the origin of the name ‘Hokianga’ – hoki means ‘to return’. 2

Kupe’s place names

Kupe named many localities including Arapāoa, Mana, the islands Matiu (Somes Island) and Mākaro in the Wellington region, Kohukohu, Pouahi, Maungataniwha and Hokianga in the north. These names have been preserved by generations of Māori people settling the regions. While some of the names from other ancestors have been lost, those associated with Kupe seem to have endured.

    • Nga korero a Mohi Ruatapu, tohunga rongonui o Ngati Porou: the writings of Mohi Ruatapu. Ed. and trans. Anaru Reedy. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1993, p. 23. › Back
    • Himiona Kaamira, ‘Kupe.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 66 (1957): 219–235 (translation by Bruce Biggs). › Back


Who was Toi?

Toitehuatahi (Toi the lone born) is an important early ancestor of Māori people. In some traditions he comes from Hawaiki, while in others he is indigenous to New Zealand. All, however, speak of his authority and prestige. A tribe known as Te Tini o Toi (Toi’s multitudes) are said to have inhabited the land prior to the arrival of canoes such as Te Arawa, Tainui and Mataatua. Early peoples such as this are often referred to as the tangata whenua – the people of the land. Their tenure and prestige is recognised in the traditions of the later Polynesian peoples.

Stories of Toi

As with many important early ancestors, there are various stories about Toi. Particularly well known is the tale in which Toi, of Hawaiki, eats the dog of Uenuku. Another version has Toi as the consumer of trees or forest food, which is the meaning of his name Toikairākau. Some tribes place Toi on the North Island’s East Coast, while Hauraki peoples say he lived at Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula.

Whakatāne place names

Perhaps the greatest number of traditions about Toi can be found with the Mataatua peoples, particularly Ngāti Awa of the Whakatāne district. Here there are numerous place names and places associated with Toi, the most famous being the called Kaputerangi, the home of Toitehuatahi. Located above the present-day Whakatāne township, the pā affords a magnificent view of Te Moana-a-Toitehuatahi (the sea of Toitehuatahi) in the Bay of Plenty. Another place name is Te Puku-o-te-wheke (the centre of the octopus), just west of Whakatāne. The tentacles of the octopus symbolise the sphere of Toi’s influence, and its centre indicates his home.

Toi and Ngāi Tūhoe

The stories of Toi are used in later traditions about the celebrated Tūhoe, ancestor of the Ngāi Tūhoe people. Tūhoe enjoys mana through being a descendant of Toi and Pōtiki (another early ancestor) and later ancestors of the Mataatua peoples. This is commemorated in the Ngāi Tūhoe saying:

Nā Toi rāua ko Pōtiki te whenua, nā Tūhoe te mana me te rangatiratanga.
The land belongs to Toi and Pōtiki, the prestige and chieftainship belongs to Tūhoe.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'First peoples in Māori tradition', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 8 February 2005