Story: Population change

Page 6. Māori population change

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There were barely 100,000 Māori in New Zealand when 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 years 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. In 2014 life expectancy was 73 years for Māori males and 77.1 years for Māori females.

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. The Māori rate increased slightly at the end of the 20th century but this was partly due to a change in the Māori births were calculated. In 2017 the Māori fertility rate was 2.39.

Māori women give birth at a younger age than European women. In 2017 68% of Māori births occurred to mothers aged 29 or under, compared with European (46%), Asian (37%) and Pasifika (64%) mothers.

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 early 21st century, the difference in size between the two age groups was less marked for Māori than for European.

Older Māori (65 and over) remain proportionally small in the early 21st century. 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 early 21st century was close to the non-Māori rate at just over 60%.

In 2013, 52% of the Māori population was aged 24 and below, compared to 33% of the European population, 38% of the Asian population and 55% of the Pasifika population.


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 Mozzies – 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.

Age structure and workforce

The relative youth of the Māori population means that the proportion entering the workforce age population is greater than for the older European population, and the proportion leaving (entering retirement) is smaller. These differences give rise to a potential 'collateral' demographic dividend for Māori, as Māori workers replace Europeans.

In 2013 Māori at labour market entry age (15–24 years) accounted for around 18% of all people at that age. This is projected to increase to 21% by 2038. Pasifika (9%) and Asian (13%) youth are projected to rise to 12% and 18% respectively. 

  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 and Natalie Jackson, 'Population change - Māori population change', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Ian Pool and Natalie Jackson, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 23 Aug 2018 with assistance from Natalie Jackson