Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Ideas of Māori origins

by  K. R. Howe

Are Māori descendants of the Greeks and Egyptians? Were they one of the Lost Tribes of Israel – or was India their homeland? And did they arrive in one great fleet of canoes? From their earliest encounters with Māori, European scholars were fascinated by the origins of New Zealand’s inhabitants and came up with many theories – most of which were fantastical or fallacious. More recently, scientific research has revealed compelling evidence of a Polynesian origin for Māori.

1770s–1840s: early ideas

The first Europeans

When Westerners first entered the Pacific Ocean, they were amazed that most islands were already populated. They immediately wondered who these people were, where they had come from, and how they had reached such remote locations. So began a long Western tradition of investigation.

The Cook voyages

Captain James Cook’s three voyages discovered and charted the region that became known as Polynesia: the Pacific Islands and New Zealand. Cook also identified the Malayo-Polynesian language family (now known as Austronesian). He and his scientists noted the striking similarities in the physical appearance, customs, mythology and especially languages of the Polynesian peoples, including Māori. This suggested a common and comparatively recent settlement of that region.

Naming Māori

New Zealand’s first settlers were Polynesians who developed their own culture and established different tribal groups, called iwi. Isolated for centuries, and immersed in their own communities, they had no need for a word to define themselves as a collective group. But by the 1830s, after the arrival of Europeans, the word ‘Māori’ (meaning ‘ordinary people’) was being used to distinguish them from ‘Pākehā’ (‘white people’).

Cook’s observations also suggested that the islanders’ more distant origin lay far to the west – in the ‘Malay’ region or the ‘East Indies’; Australia and South America were firmly ruled out since there were no apparent similarities with people there. These views are essentially accepted today.

Greeks, Polynesians and time travellers

Unlike Cook, the European commentators who followed were often influenced by a popular preoccupation of the time – their own historical links to ancient Greece. In New Zealand, the French explorer Dumont d’Urville saw, in ‘spontaneous comparison’, Greek towns and landscapes and characters, including a seaborne war party that resembled the ‘victors of Troy’.

Placing the origins of Māori and Pacific people in Europe or western Asia was an intellectual tradition that lasted well into the 20th century. Polynesians were often regarded as living archives who might reveal clues about ancient European peoples. Some commentators saw their travels as a voyage back in time, to witness ancient versions of themselves. In contrast, today’s understanding is that while the first settlers of Polynesia came from the region of the South China Sea, the development of Polynesian culture took place in Polynesia itself.

Missionaries and lost tribes

Evangelical Christian missionaries had a biblical interpretation of history, in which all people were the descendants of Noah after the Great Flood. They held that the ‘less degraded savages’, including the people of Polynesia, had descended from Noah’s preferred son Shem; and that the ‘utterly degraded’ Papuans and Australian Aborigines were the progeny of his less favoured son Ham.

The missionary Samuel Marsden was possibly the first to propose Jewish or Semitic (meaning descendants of Shem) origins for Māori. Drawing on his observations of their capacity for trade, as well as some of their religious practices, he suggested that Māori had ‘sprung from some dispersed Jews’. 1 Thomas Kendall, another missionary, detected Old Testament ideas in Māori beliefs and carvings and, using the 1797 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, uncovered Pythagorean concepts in Māori cosmology. He suggested Māori originated in Egypt, though he did not claim they were Jews. But many other missionaries in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands spread the notion that the peoples of Polynesia derived from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. It was an argument that Māori sometimes turned to their own uses, claiming that they were among God’s chosen people.

  1. J. R. Elder, ed., The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden, 1765–1838. Dunedin: Coulls Somerville Wilkie and A. H. Reed, 1932, pp. 219–220. › Back

1840s–1930s: the Aryan theory

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, religions and mythologies.

One of the great intellectual achievements of the time was to understand the historical connections and development of languages. This began with William Jones in 1786, 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 Oxford linguist Max Müller pointed to the significance of ancient Aryan societies who 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 in the concept of a single Aryan ancestry 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 include 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 Captain 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 did contain significant remnants of Sanskrit; and that island customs, mythologies and religions were full of fragments of Aryan culture.

The linguist and scholar Edward Tregear, who came to New Zealand in 1863, argued that some of Müller’s Sanskrit-speaking Aryans in India 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 at least until the 1930s.

1840s–early 20th century: Māori tradition and the Great Fleet

Māori oral tradition

From 1840 there had been many collectors of Māori oral traditions, but these accounts offered no agreement about a date of arrival, or who arrived, or the number of vessels, or the exact point of departure in Polynesia.

However, there were some points of agreement. One was that many of the collected traditions traced Māori arrivals to specific canoe landings, and that certain canoe names commonly recurred in certain regions. The landings were thought to have happened several hundred years earlier, rather than thousands. And there was considerable speculation that there was an inferior pre-Māori population that was overrun by the arrival of Māori.

Hawaiki – the homeland

Māori told early Europeans that their ancestors had sailed to New Zealand from Hawaiki, which is the name of their ancestral home. They placed it somewhere to the north-east of New Zealand. Today it is believed that the most likely region from which Polynesians came to New Zealand is the Southern Cook and Society islands.

A new interpreter: S. Percy Smith

Towards the end of the 19th century, questions about Polynesian origins and the coming of the Māori helped to foster an emergent sense of New Zealand identity. This required a heroic account of the country’s past, its likely triumphant destiny, and a way of interpreting the colonial encounter with Māori.

The man who gave New Zealand such a history was S. Percy Smith, surveyor general and co-founder and co-editor (with Edward Tregear) of the Polynesian Society and its journal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Smith ‘tidied’ Māori oral tradition into a simple, coherent narrative.

The story of the Great Fleet

Smith’s account went as follows. In 750 AD the Polynesian explorer Kupe discovered an uninhabited New Zealand. Then in 1000–1100 AD, the Polynesian explorers Toi and Whātonga visited New Zealand, and found it inhabited by a primitive, nomadic people known as the Moriori. Finally, in 1350 AD a ‘great fleet’ of seven canoes – Aotea, Kurahaupō, Mataatua, Tainui, Tokomaru, Te Arawa and Tākitimu – all departed from the Tahitian region at the same time, bringing the people now known as Māori to New Zealand. These were advanced, warlike, agricultural tribes who destroyed the Moriori.

1880s–1970s: Moriori origins; the Great Fleet

Early ideas about Moriori

From the mid-19th century large numbers of moa bones were discovered alongside human tools. This raised questions about whether the moa had been exterminated by Māori, or by pre-Māori people. If the latter, who were these people and what happened to them?

One answer was offered by the geologist Julius von Haast. He concluded that those who had hunted the moa belonged to pre-history and were a Palaeolithic people. Percy Smith’s Great Fleet story neatly offered an explanation for what happened to them and when: New Zealand was first populated by a primitive, nomadic, moa-hunting people (the Palaeolithic Moriori), before being replaced by a superior, agricultural people (the Neolithic Māori).

Justifying colonisation

Ever since the days of Captain Cook it was widely believed that the peoples of Polynesia were dying out as a result of Western contact, although there was no agreed explanation.

In the second half of the 19th century Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution provided such an explanation – that the ‘weaker’ races, and notably the Polynesians, were doomed to extinction by immutable natural laws. In the case of Māori, the census of 1896 showed their numbers (42,000) to be the lowest since colonisation began. That Māori had caused the extinction of the Moriori (the people thought to be living in New Zealand before Māori), and were now in turn being supplanted by European colonists was nobody’s fault, but simply the way it must be. The Great Fleet theory legitimised European colonisation and the possibility of Māori extinction. The artist Charles Goldie’s portraits of Māori commonly depicted them wistfully contemplating and accepting their own passing.

Aryan destiny

S. Percy Smith’s Great Fleet narrative must also be seen in the wider context of Aryan theory. His story told of a long and adventurous past for both Māori and Pākehā migrants, linked to a distant but common ancestry. But the real triumph was that the next migrants to New Zealand – the European settlers – were making a great new country not only for themselves, but for humanity. These Britons of the South believed that they were a reinvigorated version of their Old World forefathers. In the Liberal era of the late 19th century, New Zealand was seen as the world’s social laboratory, the very birthplace of the 20th century.

The Great Fleet becomes legend

Smith was ably supported by other key gatekeepers of Māori knowledge, notably Elsdon Best, who enhanced the story of the Moriori, their inferiority, and their Melanesian origins. The idea of the Great Fleet was accepted by Māori and Pākehā. Even the Māori scholar Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), who claimed he had special insights into Māori history because of his ‘Polynesian corpuscles’, nevertheless argued that Polynesians were Aryans who might have originated in the Middle East and most likely did live somewhere in India. Throughout his life he was an ardent supporter of the Great Fleet theory. He also generally supported the story of discovery by the earlier Polynesian explorers Kupe, Toi and Whātonga, but did not accept that there were pre-Polynesian Moriori in New Zealand.

Smith’s narrative became a legend. At least until the 1970s, it was a feature of Māori and Pākehā learning, and was enshrined in New Zealand’s wider culture.

1920s–2000: new understanding

Demise of the myth of pre-Māori people

The idea of a pre-Māori known as Moriori was debated 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 Polynesian themselves. 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 2000s 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 about 300 years. 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 AD), 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 there is left in them. From the new evidence this produced it was believed for some time that Māori had arrived much earlier – around 800 AD. 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 AD for arrival of the Great Fleet.

Also, while Smith claimed that he used only ‘authentic’ traditions, his basis for selection was very 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, it has been shown recently, was also involved in the Māori 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 AD. 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. He 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 (war chant) and symbols such as the koru (unfolding fern) 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 school children.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: K. R. Howe, 'Ideas of Māori origins', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2019)

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