Story: Population change

Page 6. Māori population change

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There were barely 100,000 Māori in New Zealand when Captain James Cook first visited in 1769, and demographers estimate the population to have been 70,000 to 90,000 when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. It is likely that the Māori population had continued to grow after 1769 – but that growth rates declined in the early 19th century because Māori were exposed to new diseases to which they had no immunity (like measles, influenza and tuberculosis), introduced by Pākehā settlers. The musket wars of the 1820s and 1830s added to rising mortality rates, but not to the extent that some commentators have suggested.


Very high levels of mortality meant that the Māori population declined for most of the 19th century. The most rapid decrease occurred between 1840 and 1860, when the Māori population dropped by up to 30%. Immunity to communicable diseases gradually improved and the rate of decline slowed from the late 1870s. In 1896 the population reached its lowest figure at around 42,000.

By the later 1890s, however, the population was on the increase, as had been predicted by Māori politician Sir James Carroll. Public health programmes aimed at Māori had a favourable impact in the early 20th century, as did the introduction of universal free health care from 1941. By the second half of the 20th century Māori life expectancy had improved significantly, from 28 at birth for males and 25 for females in 1891 to 61 for males and 65 for females in 1966. The period of life at which the largest proportion of the population died changed from childhood (which was the case in the 1890s) to later middle and old ages. The main causes of death changed from communicable diseases to non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

Fatal impact?

The idea that Māori were dying out was a commonly held belief in New Zealand right up until the 1930s, despite the fact that the Māori population had been increasing for a generation by then. This belief was reflected in New Zealand literature. Arthur Adams’s 1899 poem ‘Maoriland’ states, ‘[T]hough the skies are fair above her / Newer nations white press onward / Her brown warriors’ fight is over / One by one they yield their place, Peace-slain chieftains of her race’.1


Māori fertility rates declined from 1769, probably because of factors such as the introduction of venereal diseases by Pākehā, and exposure to other diseases and malnutrition, which affect the capacity to conceive. Fertility rates increased in the mid-19th century and rose from 4.5 births per woman in 1844 to 6.1 in 1886. They remained around this level into the second half of the 20th century.

Unlike the Pākehā fertility rate, which consistently declined from the late 19th century and remained low into the 1940s, the Māori rate hovered between 5.9 and 6.9 births per woman between 1901 and 1961. After this the rate steadily dropped, particularly from the early 1970s when it exhibited one of the most rapid falls in the world. Like Pākehā rates, Māori fertility rates reached a low point in the mid-1980s (2.14) but, unlike Pākehā, the rate has never fallen below replacement level. It was 2.8 in 2009.

Age structure and dependency

The decline in mortality, and consistent and relatively high fertility rates in the 20th century, meant that the Māori child population was high. It reached 50% of the total Māori population in the 1960s. Those of working age (15–64) increased significantly after the birth rate declined in the 1960s and 1970s. However, unlike the Pākehā child population, the Māori child population did not fall but continued to grow. From the 1980s to the 2000s, the difference in size between the two age groups was less marked for Māori than for Pākehā.

Older Māori (65 and over) remained proportionally small in the 2000s. It is projected that older Māori will constitute 10% of the Māori population in 2031, when all older people will make up 22% of the total population. However, the numbers of older Māori will grow 7.6 times between 1991 and 2031, compared to 2.7 times for the total older population.

Māori dependency ratios have exceeded those for Pākehā (except in the 1870s) because of a relatively high and consistent birth rate. The Māori ratio dropped from the 1960s and in the 2000s was close to the non-Māori rate at just over 60%.


From the 1970s Māori migration to Australia became a significant trend. In 2001, 73,000 people of Māori origin lived in Australia, compared to 26,000 in 1986 and just 862 in 1966 (though the 1966 figure is somewhat inaccurate because Māori with European heritage were not counted). Māori in Australia were often known as Maussies – or Ngāti Kangaru.

Migration and workforce

Since the 1960s a majority of Māori have been urban dwellers. The proportion of Māori who lived in urban areas increased from 25% in 1945 to 62% in 1966. The Māori exodus from rural areas after the Second World War was one of the most rapid urban migrations in the world at the time. Prior to this, Māori workers were concentrated in the primary sector. Increasing urban migration was connected with a shift of Māori workers into the secondary and tertiary sectors.

  1. Quoted in Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, Maoriland: New Zealand literature, 1872–1914. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006, p. 111. Back
How to cite this page:

Ian Pool, 'Population change - Māori population change', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 August 2018)

Story by Ian Pool, published 5 May 2011