Story: When was New Zealand first settled?

Page 2. Genealogical dating

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The method of genealogical dating involves counting back through the generations of Māori to the arrival of their ancestors in tribal canoes. In the early 2000s most tribal genealogies, or whakapapa, placed settlement at 24 to 27 generations ago. Assuming there are 25 years per generation, this gives a date of 1325–1400 CE.

Genealogies also include earlier ancestors. Many oral traditions identify the Polynesian explorer Kupe as the first arrival. In some traditions another ancestor, Toi, was also said to be living in Te Ika-a-Māui (the North Island) before the arrival of tribal canoes.

Historians who question the accounts of the early arrival of Kupe and Toi say that these developed from European ideas or Pacific Island sources rather than through Māori oral tradition. These traditions establish both Kupe and Toi as real figures who lived around the time of the settlement canoes – 1300–1400 or later.

Whatever the case, traditions may suggest that discovery preceded large-scale settlement by a considerable period of time. This idea is supported by accounts of tribal canoe voyagers arriving to find Polynesians already living in the North Island.

Explorers may have travelled along the coast without leaving archaeological traces on land. It is possible that some explorers returned to East Polynesia with sailing directions, as told in Māori traditions.

Drawbacks of genealogical dating

For dating purposes, genealogies are problematic. For example, if you assume the average gap between generations was 20 rather than 25 years, this alters the arrival and settlement dates by more than 100 years. Genealogies can also be highly selective, highlighting or bringing in some ancestors and not mentioning others. In addition, there are complex kinship patterns in Māori society; genealogies did not always follow parent–child relationships.

While oral traditions provide no exact date for arrival or settlement, they do provide an interesting strand of knowledge to compare with other types of evidence. Whether it is coincidence or not, the timing of settlement identified in oral traditions (1325–1400, assuming 25 years per generation) broadly agrees with the findings of radiocarbon dating, which indicates permanent Polynesian settlement was established around 1300.

How to cite this page:

Geoff Irwin and Carl Walrond, 'When was New Zealand first settled? - Genealogical dating', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/when-was-new-zealand-first-settled/page-2 (accessed 14 November 2019)

Story by Geoff Irwin and Carl Walrond, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 May 2016