Story: Māori

Page 2. Pre-European society

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The Māori people of Aotearoa (New Zealand) are descendants of Polynesian peoples who had arrived by 1300 CE. While there is considerable debate about the precise date and the number of vessels, it is now believed that during the late 1200s a number of ocean-going waka (canoes) made their way from east Polynesia, to land at various points on the coast of New Zealand. Again there is much discussion about precisely where these ancestors came from. Some argue that they made their way from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands group; others say they left from Raiatea, in the Society Islands. Similarity of place names and languages suggests a link between the people of these islands and New Zealand.

Arrival in New Zealand

According to oral tradition, some canoes landed on the East Coast of the North Island. Whangaparāoa, at the very eastern tip of the Bay of Plenty, is often referred to as the landing place of numerous canoes, including the famous Tainui and Te Arawa. Another canoe, Mataatua, made its landfall at the mouth of the Whakatāne River.

Most canoes explored the coasts, reconnoitring the land and seeking safe haven. The Tainui, for example, is said to have travelled along the Bay of Plenty coastline before journeying through the Hauraki Gulf and into the Waitematā Harbour. It then travelled up the Tāmaki River. When they could go no further, the crew set about dragging the canoe over the Tāmaki isthmus (at about Ōtāhuhu) before sailing again in the Manukau Harbour. Following that, they travelled southward to Mōkau, in King Country, before returning northward to make final landfall at a place called Rangiāhua on the Kāwhia Harbour.

Early settlements

Māori oral tradition tells of explorers who made long journeys, such as Tamatea-pōkai-whenua, who travelled from the far north to the deepest south. Certainly by the end of the 14th century the entire country had been explored. However, it seems likely that many remained close to their initial settlements. Tainui peoples, for example, are said to have remained near Kāwhia Harbour for six or seven generations. During this time, they came to experience a new climate (much colder than they were used to) and new species of flora (such as flax) and fauna (such as the tūī and other birds). These early settlements were often at harbours or the mouths of rivers – close to the sea, with good access to fishing and shellfish grounds. There was extensive hunting of seals and the large flightless bird, the moa.

‘Look arounds’

Among the strange new creatures that Māori discovered in the new land were fur seals, then very common on the coasts of both islands. The Māori named them kekeno – ‘look arounds’ – which, as visitors to a seal colony will agree, is an exact description of what seals do.

The move inland

Increasingly Māori developed horticulture. With careful techniques, often involving the use of stone walls, and fire embers to warm soils, they succeeded in establishing several plants, especially the kūmara (sweet potato). They also turned inland, and over several generations encountered the great forests. Māori culture moved from being largely maritime to one which, in certain places, was dominated by trees and bird life.

Traditional culture

Pre-European Māori culture was oral, and based on small autonomous sub-tribes living in valleys, harbours and other localities. Tribal histories are rich with stories of armed conflict, and New Zealand’s many sculpted hills and ridges – the relics of fortifications – are evidence of the importance of warfare in traditional Māori society.


In March 2003 the New Zealand Archaeological Association had records of 6,852 sites in New Zealand as pā – fortified places used in the event of war. The great majority of these were in or north of Whanganui and Hawke’s Bay.

Cannibalism was a feature, as was polygamy. Technology was limited to tools made of naturally occurring materials such as pounamu (the South Island’s greenstone) and tūhua (obsidian); flax was used for weaving and other purposes. There was extensive trade in these goods, usually in the form of gift exchange. Read more about Māori use of stone and other material for fishing, gardening and carving.

Communal relationships

The values of the society arose from its communal nature. Individuals were seen as the repository or the voice of the group. There was a tapestry of intricate genealogical relationships, and the notion that what affects a part also affects the whole was strongly upheld. Similarly there was a belief that humans were part of nature – the forests, seas and waterways. People saw themselves in a sacred relationship with the natural world, and the exploitation of natural resources was conducted under strict regimes of tapu (sacredness) and mana (spiritual authority) administered by tohunga (priests).

By the time of European arrival, Māori had settled the land, and every corner came within the interest and influence of a particular tribal or sub-tribal grouping.

How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Māori - Pre-European society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 March 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 8 Feb 2005