Story: Pacific migrations

Page 7. Māori ancestors

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A homeland region

At the time of the settlement of New Zealand, there was a voyaging and trading sphere in East Polynesia within which ideas and cultural traits were shared and spread. All the available evidence of artefacts, language, biology and tradition suggests that this was the Māori homeland. It consists of the Society Islands, the southern Cook Islands and the Austral Islands in French Polynesia.

Even so, specific archaeological evidence is scarce. The shank of a fishing lure of black-lipped pearl shell, found at Tairua in the Coromandel, is one of a very few items from New Zealand archaeological sites that were actually brought from Polynesia.

It is unlikely that the ancestors of Māori came from only one location. DNA from New Zealand’s Pacific rat shows diverse lineages from the Society and Cook Islands. This suggests that several canoes came from a number of sources. They may have come over several generations, or even centuries. A study of human DNA also suggests that there was a minimum of 70–100 women as founding ancestors. Several canoes, possibly coming from several locations, would be needed to bring this number of people.

Return journeys?

For a time, the Kermadec Islands and Norfolk Island were occupied, possibly as stopover points for canoes returning to East Polynesia. However, there is no archaeological evidence of return voyaging. There is evidence of direct New Zealand–Norfolk connections. These ‘mystery islands’ were empty when Europeans arrived. By then, the settlers in New Zealand had been cut off from the outside world for centuries.

A temperate land

Polynesian ancestors of the Māori arrived to a vast, cool archipelago covered in forest, with abundant wildlife. There were moa species (weighing from 20 to 250 kg) and other now extinct native birds including a swan, a goose, and Haast’s eagle (the world’s largest), probably a predator of the moa. Sea mammals, particularly seals, were plentiful on the coast, as were fish and shellfish.

Polynesians introduced the dog and the rat; if pigs and fowl had been on the canoes, they did not survive. The settlers also brought with them taro, yam, paper mulberry and the Pacific cabbage tree (Cordyline fruticosa). The kūmara (sweet potato) and gourd came from South America via East Polynesia. It was too cold for plants such as coconut, breadfruit and banana.

How to cite this page:

Geoff Irwin, 'Pacific migrations - Māori ancestors', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

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