Story: Tapa whenua – naming places

Page 1. Exploration and naming

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To name and claim

The adage ‘to name is to claim’ has been central to discovery and exploration since time immemorial – Māori call it tapa whenua, whakaingoa whenua or whakahau whenua. Naming places involved a number of customs, including:

  • transplanting Polynesian ancestral names and symbolism to New Zealand places
  • taunaha (naming after body parts) to emphasise personal claims to land
  • naming places according to their features
  • naming places after people
  • naming for historical or spiritual reasons
  • naming to celebrate cultural icons.

Tapatapa whenua and taunaha whenua both mean to formally claim land by naming it.

Common Polynesian names

Polynesians often simply named places after features of the landscape. Common names included motu (islands), maunga (high peaks) and awa (reef passage, harbour or river). Large mountains were named Maunganui, broad mountains Maungaroa, and sacred mountains Maungatapu. Large hills were Pukenui and small hills Pukeiti. Awanui (big river), Awaiti (small river), Awaroa (long river), Awarua (two rivers) and Awatoru (three rivers) are among the most widespread names in Polynesia. Long harbours were named Whangaroa, such as that north of Kerikeri in New Zealand; Fagaloa in Samoa; Fa‘aroa in Tahiti; Hangaroa in Rapa Nui; and Hanaloa (now Pearl Harbor) in Hawai'i.

New arrivals

When the Polynesian ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand they named many places. Crew aboard the Te Arawa canoe named many inland areas after themselves or after distinctive features. Chiefs named places after themselves, a practice called taunaha whenua. Incorporating personal names in place names would later reinforce a tribe’s claim that their ancestor discovered, named and therefore owned the land. Such places include Te Kūreitanga-o-te-ihu-o-Tama-te-kapua (the bridge of Tamatekapua’s nose – a headland), Te Takapū-o-Tapuika (Tapuika’s belly – plains), Te Rotoruanui-a-Kahumatamomoe (the great lake of Kahumatamomoe) and Te Rotoiti-kite-a-Īhenga (the smaller lake of Īhenga).

Other names refer to voyaging, and include possessions or parts of a canoe. Ngā Rā-o-Kupe (the sails of Kupe) is a rock formation at Palliser Bay; Te Kupenga-o-Taramainuku (Taramainuku’s net) is the Manukau Harbour bar; Te Kurī-a-Pāoa (Pāoa’s dog) is Young Nick’s Head; and Ngā Kurī-a-Kupe (Kupe’s dogs) is in the Hokianga. Tradition says Kupe named Matiu and Mākaro (Ward and Somes islands) in Wellington Harbour after his children.

Tribal claims to an area could be reinforced by stating that ancestors created the rivers, lakes and mountains. For instance, the river Te Waiopāoa (the water of Pāoa) is said to have formed when the chief Pāoa urinated. The founding ancestor Rākaihautū walked the length of the South Island digging out and naming basins, which later filled with water to become the great southern lakes, while the diggings became mountain ranges.

Names for New Zealand

The North Island was called Te Ika-a-Māui (the fish of Māui) or Aotearoa, while the South Island was Te Waka-a-Māui (the canoe of Māui), Te Wai Pounamu (the greenstone waters) or Te Wāhi Pounamu (the place of greenstone). Aotearoa is now used to mean the whole of New Zealand, although in the 19th century the country was called Niu Tīreni (a transliteration of New Zealand) or Aotearoa me Te Waipounamu (the North Island and South Island).


Māori oral traditions record the journeys of explorers who, landed in canoes, then walked inland claiming territory for their descendants. The ancestor Kahupekapeka walked from Kāwhia Harbour, naming an arch of mountains from Pirongia and Kakepuku in the west to Te Aroha in the north and Tītīraupenga in the south – an area that now forms the boundary of the Tainui tribes. The Northland ancestor Tōhē walked from Kapowairua Bay (Spirits Bay) to Maunganui Bluff north of Dargaville, naming more than 100 places.

Māori history is remembered in the naming of places after ancestors, battles and significant events.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Tapa whenua – naming places - Exploration and naming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 24 Nov 2008