Story: Te ohanga onamata a rohe – economic regions

Page 1. Tradable commodities

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Arrival from Polynesia

The Polynesian ancestors of Māori first arrived in New Zealand around 1300. Coming from small tropical islands in Polynesia, they found themselves on a larger, cooler island group and had to adapt to the new environment. Initially they spread out across the archipelago, using the sea as a coastal highway, looking for ideal places to live. They sought accessible food resources, materials for clothes, shelter and weapons, and waterways for transport by waka (canoe).

Early settlement

Māori probably settled the North Island first, followed soon after by the South Island. The rapid spread was due to the availability of big game – moa and seals – throughout the North and South islands. Initially the population in both islands would have been similar. However later the North Island population grew significantly, while the population in the colder South Island may not have reached much over 5,000.

Horticulture imports

Polynesian settlers brought a number of plants from Polynesia. Cultigens that survived were the kūmara, taro, uwhi (yam), hue (bottle gourd), aute (paper mulberry) and tī pore (cabbage tree). In general these grew best in the northern North Island. Breadfruit, coconut palms and bananas could not grow in the New Zealand climate – they were plants carried throughout the Pacific by Polynesian migrations.


When Polynesians first arrived around 80% of the country was covered in bush. It provided small seasonal berries, and roots, but not the year-round tropical harvests of coconut, breadfruit and banana that were possible in Polynesia.

Bush was burnt off to provide gardening sites and to encourage the regrowth of the edible native fern root aruhe, or bracken. Large tracts of bush were burnt, particularly coastal areas in the North Island and the east coast of the South Island.

While the remaining bush was important for fowling, small- to medium-sized birds only became a major part of the diet after the extinction of the large flightless moa, and the depletion of seal colonies, about a century after settlement.

Access to appropriate trees for building houses and waka was also important. Kauri was available in the north of the North Island, and tōtara grew throughout the country.


Māori also brought the kurī (Polynesian dog) and kiore (Pacific rat) with them. Neither required a particular habitat. The kiore thrived in the wild, but the kurī depended on people to provide food.


Māori tended to settle on the coast near rivers, harbours, and estuaries. This was important for access to freshwater and saltwater fish, and shellfish.


Stone resources were used to make tools, and for gardening and fishing implements. The most important tools were toki (adzes) and whao (chisels). The majority of early adzes were made from basalt and other hard rock like adzite (baked argillite) and greywacke. Later adzes were made from greywacke or basalt in the North Island and nephrite (pounamu, or greenstone) in the South Island. Prized stone was traded extensively.

Population distribution

Around the time of European arrival the Māori population was spread unevenly throughout New Zealand. The majority, around 80%, lived in the northern North Island, and the coastal regions northwards of Whanganui and Hawke’s Bay. This area, which was suitable for horticulture, is called ‘Iwitini’ (many people) by scholars.

Around 15% of the population were found in the remainder of the North Island, and the coast of the South Island running from Cape Farewell at the western tip to Banks Peninsula on the eastern side, where people had some access to horticulture. This is known as ‘Waenganui’ (the middle). Te Wāhi Pounamu (the greenstone place), the remainder of the South Island, had no horticulture. Only 5% of the Māori population lived there.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te ohanga onamata a rohe – economic regions - Tradable commodities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 May 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 Mar 2010