Story: Ideas about Māori origins

Page 2. 1840s–1930s: the Aryan theory

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Comparative science

In the second half of the 19th century the idea of the Semitic or Jewish Polynesian was replaced by that of the Aryan or Caucasian Polynesian. Rather than Egypt or Greece, India was seen as the original homeland of Polynesians. This was a result of the fashionable science that was flourishing in England – comparative linguistics, religion and mythology.

One of the great intellectual achievements of the time was to understand the historical connections between and development of languages. This began in 1786 with William Jones, who argued that there were links between European languages and Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. A succession of linguists gradually revealed the existence of the language family they called Indo-European.

In the 19th century, influential scholars such as the Oxford linguist Max Müller pointed to the significance of ancient Aryan societies which moved into India. Subsequent Indian language and culture underlay the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome, and in turn the societies of modern Europe. Müller equated the history of language with the history of race, and believed that a single Aryan ancestry was shared by Europeans and Indians. Māori became included in the chain of peoples thought to descend from the ancient Aryan tribes. Edward Tylor, a founder of anthropology, extended the analysis to ethnographic as well as linguistic clues, and claimed that some cultures contained evidence of ‘survivals’ from the formative stages of human society.

Sanskrit ‘survivals’

While commentators had gropingly applied comparative linguistic and religious ideas in the Pacific since the time of James Cook, the new comparative sciences offered more systematic analysis. It was not long before scholars in the Pacific found links between the Malayo-Polynesian and the Indo-European language families. It was claimed that Pacific Island languages contained significant remnants of Sanskrit, and that island customs, mythologies and religions were full of fragments of Aryan culture.

The self-educated linguist and scholar Edward Tregear, who came to New Zealand in 1863, argued that some of Müller’s Sanskrit-speaking Aryans in India had moved through the South-East Asian archipelago and out to the islands of the Pacific, including New Zealand. He declared that Māori language, mythology and customs contained extensive evidence of this Aryan–Indian heritage. These clues were seen to unlock the secrets of Polynesian culture, and also to offer glimpses of the formation of Aryan culture itself.

Aryan or Caucasian theory was widely accepted in New Zealand and Pacific scholarship until at least the 1930s.

How to cite this page:

K. R. Howe, 'Ideas about Māori origins - 1840s–1930s: the Aryan theory', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 March 2023)

Story by K. R. Howe, published 8 Feb 2005