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Taupori Māori – Māori population change

by Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai

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.

Population changes, 1769–1840

Early population estimates

The population of 18th-century Māori provides an important baseline for surveying Māori population change. Of the many estimates made by European observers, British navigator James Cook’s 1769 suggestion of 100,000 Māori is the most realistic. It fits with feasible growth rates, using a range of likely Māori settlement dates and founding population numbers drawn from paleontological evidence. A much higher population would only have been feasible if Māori had arrived well before 1250–1300 AD (when they are thought to have arrived), or were far healthier than skeletal remains suggest.

Population-change model


The demographic transition model has four stages. Stage one is characterised by high birth and death rates, creating a relatively stable population. In stage two mortality rates fall and the population experiences rapid growth. A drop in fertility rates signals entry into stage three. The final stage sees a return to relative stability, with mortality rates close to fertility levels and no natural increase. In 2010 the Māori population was in the third stage.


Demographic transition

In 1769 Māori were at the first stage of what demographers call the demographic transition – a four-stage model describing how populations change as they modernise. In the first stage, high births and deaths, combined with vulnerability to natural events such as famine, produce a relatively stable, young population. The life expectation of a newborn Māori baby at the time of Cook’s visit has been estimated at about 30 years, similiar to the average in Western Europe at the time.

Patterns of growth and decline

Before 1800 the combination of high fertility and relatively high mortality kept natural increase – the excess of births over deaths – in check. Mortality levels increased after European contact, setting in motion a radical population decline that reverberated throughout the 19th century. Between 1850 and 1860 the decrease was steep. In 1840 the Māori population was 70,000 to 90,000, and by the time of Francis Fenton’s 1858 census Māori numbered around 60,000 – just three-fifths of the population at the time of Cook. Though rapid, the decline was less steep than in the small islands of the Pacific.


The key factor driving Māori population change in the first part of the 19th century was exposure to introduced diseases. Māori were extremely vulnerable to the ravages of new diseases such as influenza and measles. The effects were swift and severe, but potential devastation was averted by low population densities and residence away from most of the disease-ridden coastal ports. Māori were also quick to accept introduced livestock and crops, notably pigs and potatoes, which reduced their exposure to malnutrition, thus limiting the risk of infection.



In 1839 Bay of Islands settlers agreed to set up an institution to care for the burgeoning offspring of Māori and Pākehā unions. Sydney newspaper The Colonist reported that ‘[t]he Maori-pakians (as we have heard these children called) are likely to turn out a lively, active, and intelligent race; they may form a bond of friendly feeling between the European colonists and the aborigines.’ 1 The facility was never built.


Musket wars

The intertribal musket wars of 1810–40 had a lesser impact than disease on Māori mortality. Muskets were notoriously inefficient weapons except when used Napoleonic-style with lines of infantry marching toward each other. The estimated deaths from all causes in that period for Māori were 120,000 (4,000 annually), not much higher than that expected for a population exposed to newly introduced diseases. Of the total deaths, perhaps 700 per year were due directly or indirectly to warfare.

    • The Colonist, 12 October 1839, p. 2. Back

Decades of despair, 1840–1900

A ‘dying race’

The Māori population continued its downward spiral in the wake of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, reaching a low of about 42,000 in 1896. Population decline and racist ideologies combined to fuel forewarnings about Māori extinction. In 1856 physician and politician Dr Isaac Featherston said it was the duty of Europeans to ‘smooth down … [the] dying pillow’ of the Māori race.1

The belief that Māori would eventually die out reflected colonial sentiment that indigenous peoples would not survive European conquest and disease. In 1881 the prominent scientist Alfred Newman pronounced that ‘the disappearance of the race is scarcely subject for much regret. They are dying out in a quick, easy way, and are being supplanted by a superior race.’2 In 1891 Māori cabinet minister Sir James Carroll rebuffed the extinction theory and predicted that Māori population decline would be arrested through economic self-development.

Swamped by Pākehā

The scale and pace of colonisation increased rapidly after the Treaty. In 1840 the ratio of Pākehā to Māori was about one to 40. By 1860 the groups had reached parity and Pākehā dominance was ensured by sizeable inflows of British migrants until the mid-1870s, swamping Māori. After 1874 Māori were less than one-tenth of the national population, and this remained the case for a century.

Land loss

The rapid growth of the Pākehā population was the key to the demographic marginalisation of Māori – but depended on the alienation of Māori land. By 1860, 65% of land had passed out of Māori ownership. During the wars of the 1860s ‘rebel’ tribes that opposed the Crown had vast tracts of land confiscated by the government. Māori land continued to be alienated through legislative mechanisms (such as for public works), especially before 1906, but even as recently as the 1960s.

Mountain men

In 1874 there were 120 Māori males to every 100 Māori females. Modern demographers suggest such imbalances can occur in populations experiencing high mortality rates. In 1881 the scientist Alfred Newman made the unlikely suggestion that the pattern was due partly to the supposed fact that ‘male children predominate in mountainous countries’ and that it was only recently ‘that the Maoris have dwelt on the plains’.3

Mortality and life expectancy

Land alienation had long-lasting negative effects on Māori health, particularly for children. In any given region land loss was followed by a marked increase in child mortality rates, which took several decades to reverse. In the 1880s Māori mortality was well above Pākehā levels – and significantly higher than it had been before contact with Europeans. The average life expectancy (in years) of a newborn Māori girl in the 1880s was in the low 20s. By comparison, a newborn Pākehā girl could expect to live more than 55 years. Mortality was still heavily concentrated in childhood – of Māori girls born in the 1890s, 40% died before their first birthday.


In the mid-19th century Māori fertility also decreased. This was a result of high rates of miscarriage due to new communicable diseases, the impact of malnutrition on conception, and the introduction of sexually transmitted diseases. At the century’s end, Māori had developed some degree of immunity to European diseases.

  1. Quoted in Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), ‘The passing of the Maori.’ Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 55 (1924), p. 362. Back
  2. Alfred K. Newman, ‘A study of the causes leading to the extinction of the Maori.’ Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 14 (1881), p. 477. Back
  3. ‘A study of the causes leading to the extinction of the Maori,’ p. 474. Back

Population recuperation, 1900–1945

Back from the brink

The start of the 20th century ushered in a period of population recuperation, with the number of Māori increasing at each successive census. At the turn of the century, community health programmes implemented by Māori health practitioners such as Māui Pōmare and Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) were instrumental in improving Māori outcomes and life expectancy to a level exceeding that at first contact with Europeans.

Increased fertility

Growth was stimulated by increased fertility, as the negative effects of introduced diseases and poor nutrition diminished in importance, and mortality levels gradually decreased. Between 1901 and 1945 life expectancy improved slowly but steadily, reaching 49 years in 1945. These improvements were due to a number of factors, notably increased access to paid work and the generous welfare provisions of the Social Security Act 1938.

Terminating typhoid

In 1924 Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) told an audience that Māori ‘no longer accept disease and death with fatal resignation ... in districts where typhoid has occurred, over 2,000 inoculations against the disease have been made. The Tokotoko rangi (“Spear from heaven that sweeps away food and man”) … no longer makes thrusts that go unparried.’1


By 1921 the ratio of Māori to Pākehā was 4.2 to 100. But there were still two regions with dense Māori populations: Northland and the East Coast. In the Hokianga district there were more Māori than Pākehā, and in the Bay of Islands the ratio was 64 Māori to 100 Pākehā. In these areas poor soil fertility or bad roads had impeded Pākehā settlement. In contrast, the ratio of Māori to Pākehā in Auckland was less than one to 100. In the South Island, only Picton and Wairau had densities of more than one to 100.

Persistent poverty

In 1940 commentators praised the Māori demographic recovery but also underscored the challenges that accompanied accelerated population growth. The persistence of Māori social and economic deprivation was a major issue. In 1945 Māori life expectancy at birth was still 20 years lower than that of Pākehā. Dr Harold Turbott’s study of East Coast Māori communities in the 1930s revealed levels of malnutrition and poverty that were probably pervasive throughout the country. Though Māori living conditions were slowly improving, and mortality gradually declining, there was also a high degree of uncertainty and vulnerability.

Wage economy

Deprived of their once extensive economic base, Māori had to replace traditional hunting, fishing and cultivation activities with alternative modes of survival. These typically involved a mix of subsistence agriculture and seasonal or casual wage labour requiring stints away from home. Jobs in shearing or in meat-work chains could pay well in the peak months but workers and their whānau faced considerable adversity in the off-season, particularly if they had left home cultivations untended.

  1. Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), ‘The passing of the Maori.’ Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 55 (1924), p. 367. Back

Post-war changes, 1945–1970

Rapid growth

In the period after the Second World War Māori entered the second phase of the demographic transition, characterised by rapid population growth. Fertility rates remained high, well above those of Pākehā, despite the Pākehā ‘baby boom’. At the same time, levels of Māori mortality declined markedly, particularly for infants and children. The drop in mortality was influenced by a new government approach that embedded health policies within a broad range of social programmes designed to improve Māori living conditions, especially housing, incomes, employment and sanitation.

During the 1950s natural increase for the Māori population surged to more than 4% per year, close to the maximum possible increase for a group closed to migration. Growth rates between 1945 and 1966 were almost double those of the preceding two decades. The male life-expectancy advantage common among populations at the early stages of the demographic transition – when women are more likely to die in their childbearing years – also gave way to the modern norm of higher life-expectancy for women.

The second migration

Māori also transformed from a mostly rural people to a predominantly urban one. This ‘second Māori migration’ has been described as one of the most rapid urban transitions recorded for any population before the 1970s. During the Second World War, Māori had been conscripted into urban-based industries, and men had volunteered for overseas military service at exceptionally high rates. After the war, population pressures on sparse rural resources, the manufacturing boom and higher wages, provided further reasons for Māori to move. Assisted by targeted government relocation programmes, Māori left their rural homelands in droves.

By 1971, 71% of Māori lived in urban areas, compared with just 26% in 1945. Though unequivocally an urban-based people, Māori were still less likely than Pākehā to live in densely populated metropolitan areas. The cultural and social changes that ensued were rapid and far-reaching. Traditional institutions and patterns of social organisation were replaced by new identities and forms of association that marked a break from tribally structured rural life.

Urban marae

The Auckland Māori Community Centre in Freemans Bay opened in 1948 as a pan-tribal Māori cultural and social centre – akin to a marae. New Māori city-dwellers were drawn to its weekend dances, talent quests and kapa haka practices. The centre also hosted weddings, meetings and tangi (funerals), including that of Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa). It provided a template for urban marae elsewhere.

An urban proletariat

A third major change in the post-war period was the transformation of the Māori labour force. In 1945 most Māori workers were concentrated in primary industry, but by the 1970s most were in manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, the non-Māori labour force had increasingly moved into higher-paying, higher-status jobs in the tertiary sector. These labour-force shifts were a key factor in improving Māori social and economic wellbeing.

Though the Māori labour force was disadvantaged relative to Pākehā, the shift out of primary industry provided access to more stable and better-paid work. This changed from the mid-1980s, when economic restructuring reduced the manufacturing sector and Māori disproportionately bore the brunt of job losses. Not all were able to find new lines of work. Some returned to rural homelands; others migrated to Australia.

Beyond the demographic transition, 1970–21st century

1970s: a seminal decade

The 1970s were a seminal decade in Māori demographic history. After post-war improvements in mortality, rapidly falling fertility propelled Māori into the third stage of the demographic transition. Between 1972 and 1978 the Māori total fertility rate dropped from 5.1 children per woman to just 2.8. By the 1980s it had almost reached the Pākehā level. The Māori fertility decline was driven mainly by the widespread adoption of the contraceptive pill. Since the 1970s the major demographic issues for Māori have related to relative numbers of young, old and working-age people, rather than size per se, and have unfolded against the backdrop of growing ethnic diversification.

No more babies

Elspeth Kjestrup, a doctor in Ngāruawahia, remembers a young Māori mother arriving at her surgery with eight children in tow, in the early 1960s. The woman asked to go on the contraceptive pill. After Kjestrup explained that a possible side-effect of the pill was infertility, the woman grabbed her hand and exclaimed: ‘Dear Doctor, what do you think I bloody well want?!’1


The age structures of the Māori and Pākehā populations differ dramatically, reflecting historic differences in the timing and speed of their demographic transition. The Māori population is relatively youthful while the Pākehā population is much older. In 2017 the Māori median age (the age at which half of the population is older and half younger) was 24.4 years compared to 37 years for New Zealand overall. These age structure differences are important as they create distinctive needs, strengths and risks. For example, the youthfulness of the Māori population means that Māori are more likely to be exposed to incarceration and unemployment, both of which are most likely at younger ages (especially 20–29 years).

The different age structures also have implications for the support burden placed on the working age population. For Māori, youth dependency – the ratio of children to working age people – is most important. For Pākehā, it is the dependency of those aged 65 years and over.

Some demographers argue that the co-existence of a youthful Māori and rapidly ageing Pākehā population creates the potential for a Māori 'demographic dividend'. As large groups of Pākehā retire and are replaced by smaller groups, Māori will come to comprise a greater share of the working age population. With this comes an increased potential to contribute to the national economy. Over time, as more Māori workers retire, new demands will be created, particularly in health care and housing. This scenario could be different if people continue working after age 65.

Aussie savers

Recognition that many Ngāi Tahu members live in Australia led the iwi to open an Australian account for its Whai Rawa savings scheme. The scheme matches the savings of adult members up to a certain annual threshold. Accumulated savings can then be used to fund tertiary education, first homes and retirement – in Australia or New Zealand.

The third migration

In the past being Māori was firmly connected to being born and raised in New Zealand. Since 1990 an international Māori diaspora has arisen. This is concentrated in Australia, where the promise of higher living standards lured many. In the 2013 Australian census 142,106 people recorded Māori ancestry, representing about one in six of all Māori in New Zealand and Australia combined. Most of the children identified as Māori in the Australian census were Australian-born. After Auckland, Brisbane has the second largest Māori population of all cities in Australasia.

Improved indicators

In the 21st century Māori wellbeing outcomes have improved across a number of social and economic indicators. In some cases these changes were greater than for the total population, including life expectancy, tertiary education participation, employment and median hourly earnings. Even so, average outcomes for Māori tended to be poorer than for the total population. For example, in 2012–14 male life expectancy at birth was 80.3 years for non-Māori and 73.0 years for Māori. Female life expectancy at birth was 83.9 years for non-Māori and 77.2 years for Māori. Gender differences in life expectation are greater for Māori than non-Māori but are reducing over time.

Demographic transition

In 2018 the Māori population had not yet entered the fourth stage of the demographic transition, when declines in fertility stop, mortality rates are near fertility levels, and natural increase rates are stationary. The Māori population continues to grow through more births than deaths, although at a slower rate than in previous decades.

New challenges

The demography of Māori has been inextricably linked to colonialism and their historical disadvantage relative to the Pākehā majority, in terms of health, political authority and access to resources. Changing state policies (assimilation or biculturalism) and intermarriage with Pākehā have produced a great deal of cultural diversity and socio-economic inequality among Māori. Understanding the causes and manifestations of intra-Māori inequality will be an important feature of 21st century Māori demography.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai, 'Taupori Māori – Māori population change', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 27 September 2018