The Maori or Māori, the local indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand first arrived in New Zealand between 1250 and 1300 CE. While seemingly a long time ago, compare that to the aborigines in Australia whose existence in Australia dates back some 50,000 years.
According to Maori oral history, Kupe was the first Polynesian to discover New Zealand. The story is told that back in Kupe’s homeland, Hawaiki which actually means “homeland” (felt possibly to be Tahiti), a great octopus belonging to a rival of Kupe was causing problems. Kupe set out to kill the giant octopus. Such was the length of Kupe’s pursuit of the octopus that he ended up in what is now called Cook Strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand where he finally killed the beast. It is said that Kupe’s wife, Kurmarotini, first used the name Aotearoa (“Land of the Long White Cloud”), the Maori name for what is now New Zealand.
Looking at the vastness of the Pacific, it would be easy to assume that these early Polynesians found islands accidentally since the islands are so tiny in the vastness of the Pacific, seemingly as scattered and distant as the stars and constellations they navigated by. But in reality, the discovery of New Zealand by the Polynesians was part of a great number of years of systematic and deliberate explorations and expansion in the South Pacific. With their highly refined knowledge of the winds, tides and celestial navigation Polynesian ancestors of the Maori were able to cross vast expanses of ocean and know where they were and more importantly how to get back.
So the ancestors of the Maori migrated from islands in eastern Polynesia in the South Pacific to first populate New Zealand. They traveled in large ocean going migration canoes called waka in the Maori language. It is oft repeated that a “Great Fleet” of seven canoes brought the Maori to New Zealand. Some present-day Maori trace their ancestry to the specific waka on which their ancestors arrived. Some Maori tribes also claim a relationship with Kupe himself.
But things aren’t always as they appear. Despite reading essentially the same history as above in most New Zealand books, there is at least some evidence that all this is not entirely accurate.
A fair portion of the above stories regarding Kupe, the name Aotearoa and the Great Fleet were felt to be promulgated in the early 1900’s and essentially for some 60 years were indoctrinated to hundreds of thousands of school children by primary school teachers in New Zealand. The story, which is part of what some call ‘the Great New Zealand Myth’, is pleasing and through repetition becomes as good as true and even became accepted by the Maori.
Some say that there is no evidence that the Maori actually called New Zealand ‘Aotearoa’ prior to the European’s arrival. There was someone called Kupe but he possibly existed about the time of first settlement in 1300. And many would argue that there is no evidence of “the Great Fleet” story which seems to have been stitched together by a British ethnologist and a Maori scholar.
The Rats Tell the Story
The Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans), known to the Maori as kiore, traveled in their canoes with them on their ocean voyages. The rat was used as food.
Polynesian rats (1)
Stay with me for a moment! Do you remember your high school biology? Mitochondria are organelles inside cells. They function to generate energy for the cell. The main DNA in cells is in the cell nucleus but mitochondria also contain their own small fragment of DNA. When an egg cell is fertilized, the DNA from the sperm and egg are combined, but the DNA in the mitochondria which are inside the egg cell remain unchanged and are passed on to the new organism. Variations in mitochondrial DNA can be used to estimate relatedness of species.
Analysis of mitochondrial DNA of the Polynesian rat found on New Zealand indicates that there were multiple colonizations by the rat and hence multiple distinct canoe voyages and settlements.
“Kia ora!” Many New Zealanders welcome visitors with the traditional greeting of the indigenous Māori people. It means “be healthy/well” or simply…”hi”.
The Maori were predominately hunters and fisherman but also cultivated the land. Although war-like, they also had an elaborate ceremonial and cultural heritage which is maintained. After a relative degradation of their culture immediately following the arrival of Europeans, a resurgence of the Maori culture occurred in the late 20th Century including an increasing acknowledgment and respect for their language and culture. New Zealand is unique in the acknowledgement and respect it gives it original inhabitants.
Pākehā is a Maori language term for New Zealanders who are fair-skinned or of European descent. If we moved to New Zealand, Rebecca and I would be Pākehās.