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Tapa whenua – naming places

by  Rāwiri Taonui

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.

Exploration and naming

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.

Names from Polynesian mythology

Polynesian settlers often gave names from the Māui mythological tradition to the New Zealand landscape. Māui is the trickster hero of Polynesian myth, and oral traditions about him are also found as far west as Yap in Micronesia and as far east as Mangareva in French Polynesia, east of Tahiti. About 4,000 years old, these traditions were taken from island to island over centuries of migration.

Māui’s fish

The most common tradition tells how Māui fished up land from the sea. The North Island is called Te Ika-a-Māui (the fish of Māui), and takes the form of a giant stingray. When the explorer James Cook asked Māori the name of the North Island he wrote down ‘Eaheinomauwe’. He may have heard either He Mea-hī-nō-Māui (the things Māui fished up) or Te Ahi-a-Māui (the fires of Māui) – referring to Māui having brought fire to the world and the volcanic nature of much of the island. The South Island is Te Waka-a-Māui, the canoe from which Māui caught his prize. Rakiura (Stewart Island) is Te Punga-a-Māui, the canoe’s anchor stone.


Hawaiki was the most significant name transferred from Polynesia. In mythology it is the place from which all bounty came, including life, food and treasures. Ancestors referred to it as the source of life and destination of the dead – a paradise to which the spirits returned. The concept was so important that the name was given to many islands and places during migrations across the Pacific.

The earliest Polynesian name for Hawaiki was Sawaiki, probably given to the Lau islands of eastern Fiji. This is possibly where the first Polynesians crossed over to Tonga and Samoa. People named the islands they subsequently discovered after this first Hawaiki, including:

  • Savai‘i in Samoa
  • Havaiki in Niue
  • Savaiki in Tongareva
  • Havai‘i, the old name for Ra‘iatea in Tahiti
  • Havaiki, the atoll Fakarava in Tuamotu
  • Havaiki in the Marquesas
  • Hawai‘i
  • ‘Avaiki in Mangareva
  • ‘Avaiki, the spiritual name for the islands of Rarotonga.

There are several places called Hawaiki in New Zealand, including at Maketū, Aotea Harbour, Lake Rotongāio, Motutapu Island in the Hauraki Gulf, and the Auckland suburb of Mt Eden.

Sound switch

Māori share many place names with other Polynesians. But how can Whangaroa, Fagaloa, Fa‘aroa, Hangaroa and Hanaloa be the same name? While Māori is closely related to other Polynesian languages, some letters used in Māori are slightly different in those languages. H in Māori becomes S or F; R can become L; NG turns into G; W into V; and WH into F or H. All of these except W can also be replaced with a glottal stop.

Te Rerenga Wairua

Guardian mountains on the west coast of Rarotonga, including Maunga Piko, Maunga Tea, Maunga Ko‘u and Te Rēinga-a-Pora, stand above a distinctive black rock called Te Rerenga Vairua. This was where spirits were said to depart to the paradise of ‘Avaiki. The same name pattern is repeated in New Zealand, where Maunga Piko, Whangakea, Maunga Kohu-a-naki and Te Rēinga stand as sentinels along the eastern and western pathways to Te Rerenga Wairua (the spirit’s leap), at Cape Rēinga.

Traditions and place names from Polynesia


Sometimes entire Polynesian traditions were taken to new islands. For example, on the island of Taha‘a in Tahiti a taniwha named ‘Aifa‘arua‘i is said to have terrorised people travelling between Taha‘a and Motue‘a. It was killed by a man from Ara‘ura. The tradition was carried to New Zealand, where Kaiwhakaruaki was a taniwha who lived in the Parapara Stream, in Aorere (Golden Bay). It attacked and ate people travelling between Parapara and Motueka, and was killed by a man from Arahura.

Place names

Other names were relocated because of the characteristics they described. Islands at the entrance of Polynesian harbours were named Motutapu (sacred island), and were sanctuaries where voyagers could rest or regroup before reaching the mainland. There are Motutapu islands at the entrance to Tongatapu harbour in Tonga, the Te Avanui passage in Borabora, and in the Te Arearahi passage between Ra‘iatea and Taha‘a. In New Zealand, Motutapu stands at the entrance to Waitematā Harbour, and is also an island off the north-east of the South Island. Inland, the ancestors gave the name Motutapu to island bastions in lakes Te Rotoruanui-a-Kahumatamomoe and Wānaka.

Place-name clusters

Hikurangi and Aorangi

Hikurangi and Aorangi were a pair of names transferred from Tahiti via Rarotonga to different parts of New Zealand. Aorangi and Hikurangi are mountain names of special significance to Māori. Te Hokuwai of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi said the first light of creation shone upon Hikurangi:

Ka tau te rangi
Te ata tuhi
Te ata rapa
Te ata ka māhina
Ka māhina te ata i Hikurangi.
The heavens settled
The dawn began to glow
The dawn began to flash
The early morning light shone on Hikurangi.

The ancestors of Māori carried the names of these two mountains across the Pacific Ocean.

Aora‘i is the second-highest mountain in Tahiti, and Hi‘ura‘i stands nearby. The pairing next appears in Rarotonga, where ‘Ikurangi is the high peak overlooking the capital, Avarua. Arorangi stands on the other side of the island. Hikurangi mountains in particular are guardian mountains.

Tamatea translocated

New Zealand’s longest place name is Taumata-whakatangihanga-kōauau-o-tamatea-turi-pūkaka-piki-maunga-horonuku-pōkai-whenua-ki-tānatahu (the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as landeater, played his flute to his loved one). Ngāti Kahungunu claim that the name refers to their ancestor Tamatea, while the Rangitāne tribe say the name should be Tānenui-a-rangi, their ancestor.

In the North Island of New Zealand, Hikurangi and Aorangi are side-by-side in the Ruahine and Raukūmara ranges, and several other locations visited by the ancestor Tamatea. The two names were also taken to the South Island along the trade routes forged by Tahumatua, Tahupōtiki, and Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua of Ngāti Kahungunu. Hikuraki is found in Pelorus Sound and the Wairau River, and was once the name of Banks Peninsula and a small lake in Southland. Aoraki/Mt Cook is the tallest mountain in the South Island.

Other names

Some name clusters have been translocated without corresponding legends or traditions. For instance, Rarotonga’s Atiu island and Ahuahu (an early name for Mangaia) are repeated in New Zealand’s Atiu and Ahuahu in the Mercury Islands group.

Events, maps and European influences

Many Māori place names are simply descriptive, such as Whanganui (big harbour), Pukerua (two hills), Maunganui (big mountain) and Awaiti (little river), but others are difficult to translate because they may have more than one meaning. For example, Hīmatangi is either Hīma tangi (Hīma’s weeping, referring to the weeping of Hīma when she lost a club) or Hī matangi (Matangi fishes, referring to the chief Matangi who lured a taniwha out of a lake). Motuihe could be interpreted as the motu (island) of ihe (garfish), but in fact is a short form of Te Motu-a-Īhenga (the island of Īhenga).

Common words

These Māori words are common in place names:

ao – cloud, day
kino – bad
manga, ma – stream
maunga – mountain
nui – big
papa – flat, open, level
puna – spring, water
puke – hill
wai – water
whanga, aka – bay, bight, stretch of water.

Commemorating events

Numerous place names honour events. For example, Tūpai, a priest aboard the Tākitimu canoe, placed a mauri stone on a mountain between Wairoa and Napier, which attracted large flocks of birds. The mountain (maunga) resounded (haruru) with birdsong – and became known as Maungaharuru.

These names in turn, became property markers. If a person could trace their lineage back to an ancestor, they could claim rights to the places he or she had named.

Long place names

Long Māori place names are usually those which describe events. These places are often better known by their short form:

  • Rangitoto Island is Te Rangi-i-totongia-ai-te-ihu-o-Tamatekapua (the day that Tamatekapua had a bloody nose).
  • Rotorua is Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe (named by Īhenga to honour his uncle Kahu).
  • Mana Island is Te Mana-o-Kupe-ki-Aotearoa (the ability of Kupe to cross the ocean to Aotearoa).
  • Taupō is Te Taupō-nui-a-Tia (Tia’s rain cloak).
  • Hokianga is Te Hokianga-a-Kupe (the great returning place of Kupe).

Oral maps

Many waiata (songs) or tauparapara (chants) act as oral maps of tribal districts. For example, ‘He oriori mō Wharaurangi’ (a lullaby for Wharaurangi) lists places on the lower west coast of the North Island, including Whanganui, Whangaehu, Rangitīkei, Ōtaki and Waikanae, as they were named by the ancestor Haunui-a-Nanaia.

The chant ‘Te Tau-o-Mataatua’ describes the tribal area of people of the Mataatua canoe, as well as neighbouring tribes and places. The chant ‘Te Whare-o-Ngāpuhi’ outlines the boundaries of the Ngāpuhi tribe.

Numerous stories also outline the travels of explorers and the names they gave to places.


Māori also named all the waters around New Zealand. The Pacific Ocean was Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (the great sea of Kiwa), and the Tasman Sea was Te Tai-o-Rēhua. The west coast of the North Island was Te Tai Tamatāne, and the east coast was Te Tai Tamāhine. Cook Strait was Te Moana-a-Raukawa. The sea along the western coast of the South Island was Te Tai Poutini, and waters on the eastern side were, from north to south, Marokura, Mahaanui and Āraiteuru.


Many traditional Māori names became corrupted either because Māori were misheard, or the names were mispronounced. The earliest example is Tolaga Bay. In 1769 Lieutenant James Cook asked the locals of Ūawa what the place was called. They thought he was asking the name of the wind, and replied ‘Tāraki’ (north wind). Cook wrote this down as ‘Tolaga’. Another place, All Day Bay, is an altered form of Aorere (floating cloud). Te Nganaire became the Nunneries.


Many Māori-sounding place names are transliterations of English names. Some are taken from biblical names, including Hiruhārama (Jerusalem). Others are the names of other cities or states, such as Ātene (Athens) and Kareponia (California). And some are transliterations of the English-language name, including Ākarana (Auckland), Pōneke (Port Nicholson) and Hamutana (Hamilton).

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rāwiri Taonui, 'Tapa whenua – naming places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 24 November 2008