Story: Pacific migrations

The world’s first seafarers set off from South-East Asia, sailing into the Pacific on simple rafts. Thousands of years later their Polynesian descendants began exploring further east, guided by the stars and the winds. How did they survive these journeys into the unknown? And when did they discover New Zealand, the final major land mass to be settled? Radiocarbon dating and computer voyaging have provided a wealth of insights.

Story by Geoff Irwin
Main image: Pottery of the Lapita people, ancestors of the Polynesians

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Exploring the Pacific

The Pacific was the first ocean to be explored. But New Zealand’s isolated islands, in the cold south-western waters of this ocean, were the last to be settled. Migration eastwards across the vast expanse of water occurred over thousands of years.

There were two periods of settlement:

  • Ancient voyaging: from 50,000 to 25,000 BCE people from Asia sailed simple rafts from island to island, reaching Near Oceania (Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands). They traded in stone, hunted animals and gathered seafood and local plants.
  • Recent voyaging: from 1100 BCE seafarers sailed canoes further east, into Remote Oceania (Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia). The islands were much further apart and more difficult to find. Migrating voyagers kept in contact with their home islands through trading trips.

The Lapita people

The Lapita were the first to reach Remote Oceania. Between 1100 and 1000 BCE they spread to West Polynesia (including Tonga and Samoa). On single-hulled outrigger canoes they brought pigs, dogs, chickens, yams and bananas; they also invented a new style of pottery, decorated with faces.

Polynesian explorers

About 3,000 years ago Polynesian culture developed in West Polynesia. Skilled navigators in double-hulled canoes gradually discovered remote islands to the east, using their knowledge of the stars and the winds to return home safely. Groups would then set off to start new settlements. Migration through East Polynesia began after 1000 CE. 

Reaching New Zealand

Using small islands as stepping-stones, explorers finally discovered New Zealand. Archaeologists believe that the first settlers came no later than 1300 CE.

The original migrants came from a region in East Polynesia which Māori later called Hawaiki. Bringing dogs and rats, taro and kūmara (sweet potato) to New Zealand, they found plenty of wildlife, including birds now extinct: the moa, a species of swan, and the giant Haast’s eagle.

How to cite this page:

Geoff Irwin, 'Pacific migrations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Geoff Irwin, published 8 February 2005, reviewed & revised 8 February 2017