Story: Geological exploration

Page 1. Early European exploration

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The travelling naturalists

Although there was considerable knowledge of minerals and fossils at the end of the 18th century, geology had not emerged in Britain as a separate discipline of natural science. The first scattered observations in New Zealand were made by naturalists, surveyors and other travellers.

Lieutenant James Cook and his scientific staff on the Endeavour expedition to New Zealand (1768–71) were instructed to report on all aspects of natural science, including rocks, minerals and fossils, but his naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander were mainly interested in botany and ethnography. Their journals and reports make only passing reference to geological features such as floating pumice, iron sand, stones and mineral ores.

Most European visitors came to the Bay of Islands until the 1840s, and there are several accounts of local geological features such as river terraces and volcanic cones. The missionary brothers Henry and William Williams were interested in natural science, and guided visiting naturalists around volcanic cones, hot springs and river terraces.

Although many Europeans explored and surveyed remote parts of New Zealand, little information was recorded about the geology.

Ernst Dieffenbach, explorer and naturalist

Ernst Dieffenbach, a German, spent two years (1839–41) exploring the North Island on behalf of the New Zealand Company, which was promoting the country for British settlement. He also visited the Marlborough Sounds and the Chatham Islands.

Although his prime task was to look for agricultural land and minerals, he made extensive collections of plants, animals and fossils, and a number of new species bear his name. He noted the difficulty of geological research posed by the dense forest. However, he made some of the first observations of the rocks and thermal activity in the central part of the North Island, and was the first to use the term ‘greywacke’ for the widespread grey rocks of the main ranges. His book Travels in New Zealand (1843) gave an account of the fauna, flora, landscape and Māori inhabitants of New Zealand.

Dieffenbach was keen to do a broader scientific study of the new colony once his contract with the New Zealand Company ran out. Despite the backing of Governor William Hobson, he was unable to obtain financial support. After he left, only scattered geological information was gathered for almost 20 years.

Overseas interest in New Zealand geology

Paleontologists in Europe were fascinated by the distinctive fossil fauna of New Zealand, especially large extinct birds such as the moa. The naturalist Walter Mantell, who emigrated from England in 1840, made large collections from different parts of the country which were subsequently described by Richard Owen, director of the Natural History Museum in London. When Mantell visited London in 1856, he and Owen reconstructed the largest moa skeleton then known, Dinornis elephantopus. Subsequently there was a strong demand from museums and collectors for moa bones.

The 1855 Wairarapa earthquake caused considerable interest in Britain. Using information from the New Zealand surveyor Edward Roberts, the eminent British geologist Charles Lyell incorporated a description of the earthquake in the 10th edition of his classic Principles of geology. This was the first time that the relationship between faulting and earthquakes was recognised.

How to cite this page:

Simon Nathan, 'Geological exploration - Early European exploration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 August 2022)

Story by Simon Nathan, published 12 Jun 2006