Story: Taupori Māori – Māori population change

Before Europeans arrived in New Zealand, Māori life expectancy was similiar to that in Western Europe. But in the 19th century introduced diseases and land loss took a heavy toll on the Māori population, leading to dramatic predictions of their demise. However, things improved over the 20th century.

Story by Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai
Main image: Dancing at the Auckland Māori Community Centre

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Māori population before 1840

In the late 18th century there were probably about 100,000 Māori in New Zealand. Māori life expectancy was about 30 – similiar to that in Western Europe. Māori had high birth and death rates, so natural increase of the population was low.


After Pākehā arrived and settled in New Zealand, introduced diseases such as influenza and measles decimated the Māori population. Intertribal musket wars killed people, but fewer died than from disease. The loss of Māori land and resources also had a negative effect. Death rates increased and the birth rate fell because of disease and malnutrition. Child mortality was very high – of Māori girls born in the 1890s, 40% died before their first birthday. Some Pākehā believed that Māori would die out altogether.

In 1896 the Māori population reached a low of about 42,000.


In the early 20th century the Māori population began to increase. Community health programmes initiated by Māori doctors such as Māui Pōmare and Peter Buck helped improve life expectancy, and the birth rate rose. However, Māori still had high levels of poverty and malnutrition. They had lost their economic base, and had to find paid work to replace it – often seasonal employment in meat works or shearing.

Urbanisation and growth

After the Second World War many Māori moved to cities to find employment. By 1971, 71% of Māori lived in urban areas (compared with just 26% in 1945). It was one of the fastest urban transitions recorded anywhere before the 1970s. Māori death rates fell, and the birth rate remained high, so the population grew. Previously most Māori had worked in primary industries such as farming, but now many found jobs in manufacturing.

1970s onwards

In the 1970s the Māori birth rate fell, as Māori women began using the contraceptive pill. In the 2000s things had improved socially and economically for Māori, but their life expectancy was still lower than that of Pākehā.

Since 1990 many Māori have moved overseas. In the 2006 Australian census almost 93,000 people said they had Māori ethnicity.

How to cite this page:

Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai, 'Taupori Māori – Māori population change', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2018)

Story by Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai, published 5 May 2011