Story: Tapa whenua – naming places

The Polynesian ancestors of Māori named the places they visited on their voyage to New Zealand. Some names were taken from island to island. They were chosen to describe landscape features, or to celebrate people and events. Often places were named after ancestors or body parts, to emphasise tribal or personal claims to land.

Story by Rāwiri Taonui
Main image: Motutapu Island

Story summary

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Māori call the naming of places tapa whenua. They named coastal and inland places, as well as the seas around New Zealand.

Polynesian names in New Zealand

As the Polynesian ancestors of Māori voyaged to New Zealand, they named places along the way. Sometimes the same name was taken from island to island. For example, Whangaroa (which means ‘long harbour’) can also be found in Samoa, Tahiti, Rapanui and Hawaii. Often, names refer to parts of a canoe or possessions.

Māui traditions

Names from mythological traditions were brought from Polynesia and used in New Zealand. Traditions about the demigod Māui are reflected in many place names. New Zealand’s North Island is Te Ika-a-Māui (Māui’s fish), the South Island is Te Waka-a-Māui (Māui’s canoe), and Stewart Island is Te Punga-a-Māui (Māui’s anchor stone).

Descriptive names

Many Māori place names describe features of the landscape, often including these common words:

  • ao – cloud, day
  • puke – hill
  • maunga – mountain
  • papa – open, flat, level
  • puna – spring, water
  • wai – water.

Tribal places

Some places were named after important ancestors. If a tribe was descended from that ancestor, they could claim rights to the land. Some songs or chants are a list of place names, serving as an oral map of an ancestor’s journey or a tribal boundary. Place names also record the travels of explorers, who claimed and named land for their descendants.


When European explorers first arrived in New Zealand they recorded Māori place names. But sometimes they misheard the name or did not write it down correctly. For example, All Day Bay is an altered form of Aorere (floating cloud).

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Tapa whenua – naming places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 24 November 2008