Story: Te mahi kai – food production economics

Page 1. Initial settlement

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Explorers and traders

When the ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand, around 1250–1300 CE, they were the last wave of Polynesian explorers who had voyaged across the Pacific Ocean. Their ancestors had also traded between islands, over hundreds of kilometres of open sea. New Zealand was the largest landmass settled by Polynesians, but the different parts of the country where they settled were easily reached by sea.

Resource islands

Polynesians often occupied island chains, island-hopping to access resources. On arrival Māori ancestors probably treated New Zealand in a similar way. Different parts of the country were reached by sea, and it seems that both the North and South islands were quickly settled. Historian James Belich notes that early on New Zealand was approached as ‘a constellation of “resource islands”’. 1

Vikings of the sunrise

Scientists have found evidence of the extraordinary voyages of Polynesian explorers and traders. The basalt from an adze found in the Tuamotus is believed to have been brought from Hawaii, thousands of kilometres away. It also appears that Polynesians voyaged to South America, taking chickens with them and bringing back kūmara.


Tangaroa, god of the sea, is found throughout Polynesia, and fishing had been an occupation for millennia. Traditional fishing expertise and technology was transferred to New Zealand. Polynesian hooks, lures and sinkers were trialled and adapted over time, along with the lunar and nightly calendars for fishing.


New Zealand was at best marginal for the traditional crops of Polynesia. The main fruit trees of the Pacific, the breadfruit tree, coconut palm, banana tree and plantain, may have been brought to New Zealand but did not survive. The kūmara (sweet potato), taro, hue (bottle gourd), uwhi (yam) and tī pore (Pacific cabbage tree) did survive, but were marginal even in the best agricultural areas. The aute (paper mulberry), used for tapa cloth rather than food, also survived.


Polynesian explorers and traders carried four animals as they colonised the Pacific. Three were domesticated – the pig, chicken and dog – while the rat was not. While all four may have made it to New Zealand, only the kurī (Polynesian dog) and kiore (Pacific rat) survived.

  1. James Belich, Making peoples: a history of the New Zealanders: from Polynesian settlement to the end of the nineteenth century. Auckland: Penguin, 2001, p. 38. › Back
How to cite this page:

Manuka Henare, 'Te mahi kai – food production economics - Initial settlement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Manuka Henare, published 24 Nov 2008