Story: Ideas about Māori origins

Page 5. 1920s–2000: new understandings

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Demise of the myth of pre-Māori people

The idea of a pre-Māori people known as Moriori was contested by two New Zealand ethnologists – H. D. Skinner in the 1920s and Roger Duff in the 1940s. Both men argued that the first settlers, the moa hunters, were Polynesians. Duff’s excavations at the archaeological site of Wairau Bar in Marlborough established conclusively that the moa hunters were an early Māori people. He showed that differences between human tools found in different excavated layers could be explained by the evolution of a Māori culture, and were not evidence of a separate, pre-Māori people in New Zealand.

In the early 21st century, the generally accepted understanding is as follows. Polynesians were the first settlers in New Zealand, arriving in the late 1200s. Some time after 1300, possibly around 1500, a number of these people sailed east over some 800 km of open sea to the Chatham Islands. There they became isolated and developed their own distinctive culture. In the 1830s some Māori arrived at the Chatham Islands on a European sailing ship. This was the first time these two peoples, who shared the same Polynesian ancestry, had met in three centuries. The Chatham Islands people decided to call themselves Moriori – their version of the word Māori.

Disproving the Great Fleet theory

Skinner and Duff still broadly supported Percy Smith’s account of the early Polynesian explorers – Kupe (750 CE), Toi and Whātonga (1000–1100), and the Great Fleet (around 1350).

In the 1950s a new method was developed for dating organic material (such as wood, shell or bone) from archaeological sites. Radiocarbon dating determines the age of such objects by measuring the amount of the isotope carbon-14 that is left in them. From the new evidence this produced, it was believed for some time that Māori had arrived much earlier – around 800 CE. Radiocarbon dating was just one new area of research that called into question the reliability of the Great Fleet story.

In the 1960s, the ethnologist David Simmons effectively demolished Percy Smith’s Great Fleet theory. He demonstrated that Smith manipulated tradition and other evidence to produce the story he wanted. For example, Smith believed that Māori traditions were generally true. These traditions consisted largely of genealogy or whakapapa, and often began with an account of a canoe landing. By allocating 25 years to each named person in a whakapapa he devised a means of dating a tradition back to its beginning. Unfortunately, his calculations showed that few traditions started at the same time. His solution was to average them out. This produced the date of 1350 CE for the arrival of the Great Fleet.

Also, while Smith claimed that he used only ‘authentic’ traditions, his basis for selection was suspect. One of his main sources was Te Whatahoro Jury, who claimed that his knowledge came from the school of learning conducted by Te Mātorohanga in the 1860s. But Te Whatahoro’s learning was not always traditional. He was a baptised Mormon and had helped to translate the Book of Mormon (which identifies Polynesians as one of the Lost Tribes of Israel) into Māori. He was a member of the Polynesian Society and worked closely with Smith as an adviser on Māori tradition. Te Whatahoro was also involved in the Kotahitanga (unity) political movement at the turn of the century. His efforts to organise tradition were in effect a Kotahitanga project. If Smith used Te Whatahoro, so did Te Whatahoro use Smith.

And if the Great Fleet was a fabrication, so too was Smith’s interpretation of Kupe as the first explorer to arrive in 750 CE. Kupe was not a well-known figure in tradition; he features much later, in the 14th century. Similarly, Smith’s later Polynesian explorers Toi and Whātonga are largely of his making, as he selected oral traditions that supported his views and ignored those that contradicted them.

The Great Fleet was also attacked in the 1960s by the historian Andrew Sharp, who argued that Pacific peoples did not have the capacity for deliberate two-way voyaging over long distances. New Zealand was, in his view, probably discovered and settled by a single accidental arrival from eastern Polynesia. It was a controversial view, but one that carried some weight at the time.

Great Fleet, great symbol

Colonial New Zealand readily adopted many Māori icons and traditions. These provided a sense of identity as well as being important branding tools for exports and the fledgling tourist industry. Rituals such as the haka and symbols such as the koru were embraced. Perpetuating another iconic image, Europeans studying Māori oral traditions lumped together different canoe arrivals to fit the notion of one great fleet of seven canoes.

The current perspective

Since the late 20th century there have been several intriguing areas of research into both the origins of Māori and their date and mode of arrival. Radiocarbon dating of archaeological settlement sites, analysis of volcanic ash, DNA analysis of Māori females and of the Pacific rat, and reconstruction of ancient Polynesian canoes, have all contributed to recent understanding.

It is now believed that New Zealand was settled by people from East Polynesia – the southern Cook and Society islands region; that they migrated deliberately, setting off in different canoes, at different times; and that they first arrived in the late 13th century.

While there is a strong scientific basis for these conclusions, they may change as new evidence comes to light. Like all ideas about Māori origins, they reflect the knowledge and understanding of their time. The idea of the Great Fleet still has followers – which is unsurprising, considering that for decades it was the standard story taught to schoolchildren.

How to cite this page:

K. R. Howe, 'Ideas about Māori origins - 1920s–2000: new understandings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 April 2023)

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