When the Polynesian ancestors of Māori first arrived in New Zealand, they explored the coastline in ancestral canoes. Later they travelled by foot around coastal and inland areas.
Māori oral traditions record many great feats of exploration. These traditions often combine symbolic and historical aspects – including tapatapa whenua (naming landscapes after deeds and events) and taunaha whenua (naming landscapes to establish ownership).
Some traditions attribute several ancestors’ journeys to just one person. Others may transpose current land boundaries into the past. These accounts validate a tribe’s claim to land by giving mana (power) to ancestors and longevity to land ownership. Different tribes may have their own explanations for place names, justifying their claim over an area. For instance, there are two explanations for the naming of Te Aroha peak in the Kaimai Range – in one tradition, it was named Te Aroha-o-Kahu by the Tainui ancestress Kahupekapeka, who climbed the mountain after the death of her husband. In another tradition, the peak was named by Te Arawa ancestor Kahumatamomoe.
Tribes that migrated from one area to another usually took their traditions with them. Traditions about certain canoes, for instance, are found in several areas – but this may be because the story moved with a tribe, and not because the canoe explored the whole country.
Some exploration traditions explain natural phenomena. For example, geothermal activity in the North Island is explained as fire sent from Hawaiki by Ngātoroirangi’s sisters as he climbed Mt Tongariro.
In other traditions, explorers created natural features, or stocked them with resources. For instance, Pāoa, the captain of the Horouta canoe, made rivers by urinating, and the explorer Tamatea put freshwater crayfish into the Moawhango River. Such accounts use symbolism to reinforce a tribe’s claim to an area through an ancestor.
Some explorers were said to travel by supernatural means – for example, the sisters Reitū and Reipae flew from their homeland, the Waikato, to Northland on a bird. These accounts occur where the explorers passed over areas of no interest to their descendants, or where they have limited importance.
People and land
In some traditions, landscapes merge with people. For instance, Matiu (Somes Island) and Mākaro (Ward Island) in Wellington Harbour were said to be the daughters of the legendary explorer Kupe.