Around 1500 AD the ancestors of the Moriori people left the South Island and settled Rēkohu (the Chatham Islands), 800 kilometres east of New Zealand. They came up against the difficulties encountered by their Māori ancestors when settling the North and South islands in the 13th century: adjusting to a different climate and adopting new resources.
Introduced plants and animals
While it is possible that plants introduced to New Zealand by Polynesians – such as kūmara and taro – were taken to the Chathams, they did not survive. None of the plants brought from Polynesia could grow because of the overcast temperate climate. However the edible seed from the kopi (karaka tree), which may have been brought from New Zealand, was planted and grew.
While the kurī and the kiore may both have been taken to the islands, only the kiore survived. Kiore were commonly caught in broadleaf forest, especially in autumn.
The only other food sources Moriori could rely on came from the islands themselves and the surrounding ocean.
The plant foods eaten by Moriori were kernels from the kopi, small berries, nīkau buds and aruhe (bracken) fern root. Flax was used for clothing.
Fish and shellfish
Shellfish were plentiful and inshore fish were caught using set nets. There were a number of freshwater fish, but eels were exploited the most.
Fur seals were common on the Chathams. There were breeding populations on the main islands and on offshore islets. Large seals lying on shore were the most plentiful and easily killed food resource available – they provided rich protein and fat, and their skins were also used for clothing. Occasionally, a pilot whale would be stranded, and leopard seals, sea lions and elephant seals were all taken if found locally.
The heaviest and most easily caught birds were the native pigeon, bellbird and tūī, found in broadleaf forest. Rails lived in bog shrublands and at the forest edge. Ducks were plentiful in large wetland areas and lakes, and were easily caught during their moulting season. There were 16 species of penguins and flying oceanic birds which went ashore on the Chathams to breed or moult. Fledglings were easy to catch and were taken in large numbers. Adult birds were seldom taken. Oceanic birds were available all year, but in larger numbers in winter and summer.
There were no large trees suitable for waka (canoes). The general lack of good-quality wood meant that Moriori adapted their waka design to the resources available. Moriori waka were more like rafts than canoes. They were made from flax stalks and wood from the māpou tree, with rimurapa (bull kelp) for flotation.
Obsidian from Tūhua (Mayor Island), Aotea (Great Barrier Island) and Rotorua–Taupō, and argillite from Nelson, have been located in the Chathams, and would have been taken over by the first settlers. Stone resources found and used on the island included Takatika grit, dolomite and chert.