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).
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.
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.
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.
Up to 80% of New Zealand’s Māori population lived in the region anthropologists call Iwitini (many people), the northern North Island and the island’s coastal regions as far south as Whanganui on the western side and southern Hawke’s Bay on the east.
Polynesian horticulture was most successful in this area. Polynesian cultigens were kūmara, taro, uwhi (yam), hue (bottle gourd), aute (paper mulberry) and tī pore (cabbage tree). The kūmara grew best in this region, and was the principal food crop cultivated. Except in some small areas with ideal microclimates, taro would not grow outside of the region.
The importance of horticulture to Māori is illustrated by the fact that this region had 98% of all pā, which were often erected to protect fertile lands and crops.
The kūmara harvest was a time for feasting. Kūmara damaged when they were dug up were eaten, and the birds in the forest were fat. This coincided with the rise of Matariki in the dawn sky and the Māori new year. People had a saying ‘Matariki ahunga nui’ – Matariki provider of plentiful food.
Polynesian horticulture went hand in hand with bush-burning. Large tracts of land in the region, particularly coastal land, was cleared of forest. Coastal strips were cleared from Whanganui through to Taranaki, in Hawke's Bay and on the East Coast. Much of coastal Bay of Plenty, the Coromandel and Auckland had significant bush clearance, together with large areas of Northland.
Most of the population within the region lived on or near the coast. There were numerous harbours and estuaries rich in fish and shellfish, as well as fertile land for horticulture, and access to the sea for transport.
Land around Te Mānuka (Manukau Harbour) was highly sought after. The large harbour had portages to the Pacific and the Waikato River and was valued as a fishing ground for snapper, flounder and mullet, and for shellfish. Many kāinga (villages) were found on its shores and pā were erected on most of the volcanic cones nearby.
The Whanganui-a-Orotu was also a valued harbour in Hawke's Bay. Its abundance of resources meant the large population, possibly numbering in the thousands, lived near the harbour.
Stone resources were heavily traded throughout the country and land near major stone sources was valued.
The Coromandel provided good access to obsidian, basalt and chert. Obsidian was also found on nearby Aotea (Great Barrier Island), in the far north, and on Tūhua (Mayor Island) in the Bay of Plenty. Chert was also found on the East Coast. Other stone resources such as pounamu (greenstone) were only available through trading.
Kauri for large waka (canoes) was available within the region, though its southern limits were Kāwhia in the west to Tauranga in the east. Tōtara was also used for building.
Waenganui means the middle. In the North Island the Waenganui region comprised the interior of the North Island below Auckland, and the coast south of Whanganui and Hawke’s Bay. In the South Island, it covered the coast from Cape Farewell to Banks Peninsula. Waenganui had around 15% of the Māori population. Limited horticulture of Polynesian cultigens was possible in some parts, though taro would not grow at all.
Horticulture was not possible in the central North Island, but crops were grown elsewhere, especially on the Wairarapa coast. Soils were modified and stone walls were made. Forest was cleared so land could be cultivated.
In the South Island evidence of horticulture is found along the strip from Cape Farewell to Banks Peninsula, including stone structures, modified soils and borrow pits (holes where stone had been carried away).
Limestone and greywacke were the most significant stone resources in the north of the region. High-quality argillite was found on Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island) and was traded through the North and South islands. Limestone flint was also present.
Stone was traded in from other areas. Obsidian from Tūhua (Mayor Island), Coromandel Peninsula, Northland and the central North Island, and argillite from Rangitoto (D’Urville Island) have been found at an archaeological site in Wairarapa.
In the northern part of the region large areas of bush around Lake Taupō and the Rotorua lakes were destroyed by the eruption of Kaharoa, or burnt off for horticulture. Further south, most of the Wairarapa was cleared of bush. In the South Island, the forest was cleared in Whakatū (Nelson), and from Wairau down to Akaroa on Banks Peninsula.
Prior to the extinction of moa and the depletion of seal colonies, moa and seal were significant foods. Evidence of sealing, and medium-sized moa hunting and butchering sites, is found along the Wellington coast and in the South Island, including one at Whakatū. Particularly large moa hunting and butchering sites have been found at Banks Peninsula and Wairau.
Te Wāhi Pounamu is the name used for the South Island, excluding Te Tau Ihu o te Waka (the top of the South Island), and the east coast as far as Banks Peninsula.
Polynesian horticulture was impossible in this area, and a nomadic seasonal hunter-gatherer economy was necessary. This sustained fewer people, and the region had only around 5% of the Māori population before Europeans arrived.
Significant moa hunting and butchering sites have been found from North Canterbury to Southland. Sealing was particularly important in Otago and Southland.
Once moa became extinct and seal colonies were depleted, new foods were found in Murihiku (the far south). The most important sources were tuna (eels), mangā (barracouta), tī kōuka (native cabbage tree, whose roots and trunk were baked to make a kind of sugar), inland weka and coastal tītī (muttonbirds). These were all collected seasonally.
On the east coast, the bush was cleared almost entirely. But most forest on the wet rugged West Coast remained intact. Tī kōuka leaves were often used for clothing. Hue (bottle gourd), used for containers as well as for eating, could not be grown in this area, so rimurapa (bull kelp) was used to make pōhā, stout seaweed containers in which birds and eels were preserved in their own fat.
The West Coast was a particularly difficult place to survive. The Māori population may have numbered only in the low hundreds. Freshwater fishing for tuna (eels), grayling and whitebait, and fowling for weka, kākāpō, kererū, kākā and tūī, were the main sources of food. Birds and eels were preserved in pōhā. Fish and whitebait were smoked and dried. The rugged coast made fishing difficult. Vegetable foods included podocarp berries and tree-fern pith.
A large number of stone resources were found throughout this part of the South Island, including basalt, silcrete, porcellanite, Pahutane flint, greywacke and argillite. Most revered of all was pounamu – nephrite and bowenite (greenstone). Pounamu weapons, in particular mere pounamu (greenstone hand clubs), and toki poutangata (greenstone adzes), became symbols of chiefly authority. Pounamu trails were created to take stone from the West Coast over to the east coast of the island. From there pounamu was traded with other tribes, from the deep south to the far north of the country.
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.
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.
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.
Davidson, Janet. The prehistory of New Zealand. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1987.
Prickett, Nigel, ed. The first thousand years: regional perspectives in New Zealand archaeology. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1982.