Story: Marlborough region

Page 4. Early Māori history

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Māui, Kupe and Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua

Some early place names in Marlborough link the region with the trickster demigod Māui, whose waka was the South Island. These names include Te Taumanu-o-te-waka-a-Māui (the seat or thwart of the waka), another name for the Kaikōura peninsula.

Names associated with Kupe, the legendary navigator, are also found in the region. They are associated in particular with Kupe’s struggle in Tory Channel with the great octopus Te Wheke-o-Muturangi. They include:

  • Te Whekenui, a bay
  • [Te] Kura-te-au (Tory Channel), the channel red with the blood of the octopus
  • Ngāwhatu-kai-ponu (the Brothers Islands), the octopus’s eyeballs.

The famed explorer Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua reputedly named Kaikōura after eating (kai) crayfish (kōura) there.

Archaeological history

The findings of archaeology complement the Māori traditions of settlement. Archaeology has drawn attention to argillite, a metamorphosed mudstone, found only in the Nelson–Marlborough mineral belt, including on Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island). This stone was prized by Māori, who made it into adzes (cutting implements).

Home again


In April 2009 the remains of about 60 early Polynesians were reburied at Wairau Bar in an emotional ceremony. Rangitāne iwi members brought the caskets back from Canterbury Museum, where they had been since being excavated, around 1940. The iwi had sought the return of the remains for many years. One participant wrote that the reburial was ‘amazing. The emotion and electricity in the air. The release of sorrow and outpouring of joy and the feeling that this was such a good thing to be doing – returning the original inhabitants of Wairau Bar into the ground to finally rest in peace.’1


Twentieth-century archaeological excavation uncovered human remains at Wairau Bar. These remains of Polynesian settlers are thought to date from the 13th century, when humans probably first arrived in New Zealand. A rich sea and bird life would have supported such communities, and the scrapheaps of bones and shells at Wairau Bar indicate that seals, fish and large birds including moa all featured in the diet.

In the early 1700s canals and channels were developed by Māori among the natural river and estuary courses, allowing for the husbanding of fish and waterfowl, including eels and pūtangitangi (paradise shelducks). These channels totalled around 18 km in length.

Tribal traditions and names

Tribal traditions identify the region with Waitaha, Ngāi Tara, Ngāti Māmoe and Tumatakōkiri, iwi whose names (other than Tumatakōkiri) are also familiar from other parts of the country. They were succeeded by Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Apa and Rangitāne, iwi associated with the Kurahaupō waka.

  • Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō – Ngāti Apa of the sunset – settled on Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island) and further west into Tasman Bay.
  • Ngāti Kuia were found mostly around Te Hoiere (Pelorus Sound).
  • Rangitāne o Wairau settled in Tōtaranui (Queen Charlotte Sound) and on the Wairau plain.

Along the coast south of the Wairau River, Ngāi Tahu made inroads into the territory of Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tara.


After the 1824 battle of Waiorua, offshore from Kāpiti Island, where South Island warriors joined their North Island kin in attacking Ngāti Toa leader Te Rauparaha and his allies, Te Rauparaha invaded and occupied the upper South Island. Te Āti Awa from Taranaki established themselves in Queen Charlotte Sound; Ngāti Koata, a hapū of Ngāti Toa, settled on D’Urville Island, while Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Rārua acquired lands mostly further west.

The invaders also attacked Ngāi Tahu settlements on the Kaikōura coast in 1827–28. Ngāi Tahu from further south defeated the northerners at Kāpara Te Hau (Lake Grassmere) in 1834 and then at sites in the Wairau valley in 1836 and 1838. Kaikōura Ngāi Tahu who had been taken prisoner on Kāpiti returned home in 1839. Kaikōura Whakatau became the iwi’s local leader.

  1. ‘The return – part 3.’ (last accessed 27 January 2011). Back
How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Marlborough region - Early Māori history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 12 May 2012, updated 1 Nov 2016