Who Discovered New Zealand

Who were the first people to set foot on this veritable paradise, now called New Zealand?

Who were the first people to see its thick stands of forest (almost the entire country was once covered with forest), its waterfalls, pristine beaches and snow-covered mountains?

When Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer and the first European to discover New Zealand, first landed here in 1642, the land was already inhabited by indigenous people, the Maori. But who were the Maori and how and from where did they get here?

To answer this question, we first have to go back a little in time. Some 180 million years ago, the ancient supercontinent Gondwana began to separate and split into what was to become present-day Antarctica, South America, Africa, Australia, the Indian Subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula. Some eighty-million years ago, the land that was to become New Zealand separated from Gondwana and began to drift to where it is today. Over time, dinosaurs who once roamed this land disappeared, sea levels rose and fell, and the unique plants and animals found no where else in the world evolved on this isolated land. And, of course, the land remained bereft of man.

Then some 200,000 years ago, man (Homo sapiens) originated in Africa, and from there began his relentless spread around the world. Humans spread to the Near East 75,000 years ago, to Asia 50,000 years ago, to Australia 46,000 years ago, to Europe 43,000 years ago, and to America 14,000 years ago. Despite man discovering and inhabiting virtually every corner of the earth in a relatively short period of time, New Zealand at the periphery remained undiscovered and uninhabited by anyone until relatively recently, somewhere around 1250 AD, less than 800 years ago.

First, it is definitively known that New Zealand’s first inhabitants came from Polynesia. Evidence that the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, are of Polynesian ancestry is evidenced by such things as shared language attributes, a similar or shared pantheon of gods, systems of kinship and rank, concepts such as mana (loosely translated as personal power) and tapu (sacred or taboo), and similar tools (adzes, fishhooks, etc.) and methods of making them. Also, when the Europeans arrived, there were non-native plants and animals in New Zealand, which were native of Polynesia, further evidencing the connection and a presumed migration from Polynesia to New Zealand.

Finally, genetic evidence based on both human DNA and such things as mitochondrial DNA in rats, which the Polynesians brought with them on voyages, shows a definitive linkage between both groups of people.

An interesting bit of history related to all this occurred when Lieutenant—he wasn’t a captain yet—Cook first landed in New Zealand in 1769. Cook had aboard his ship a Polynesian priest named Tupaia, whom he had picked up in Tahiti 2500 miles away. When Cook first encountered the Maori in New Zealand, imagine the surprise when Tupaia was able to converse with them, evidence of the similarity in language and of the Maori’s Polynesian ancestry.

Polynesia encompasses a vast stretch of the Pacific and for practical purposes is considered to be triangular in shape bordered by Hawaii to the north, Easter Island to the southeast and New Zealand to the southwest. It consists of thousands of islands, most of them small. One author has compared this vast stretch of ocean to space. Just as space is mostly emptiness with relatively few scattered stars, so is the Pacific Ocean a vast empty expanse of water with very few rare dots of land.


Polynesia (1)

About 4000 years ago, the original Austronesians, the people of Asia and Australia (lands which were originally connected by a land bridge) began to migrate eastward and populate islands in the Pacific. Was this colonization of the Pacific accidental or purposeful? Were seagoing craft blown adrift and float around in the Pacific before eventually foundering on some island? The answer is most assuredly no. Computer drift simulations show that you are unlikely to make landfall by simply drifting haphazardly around the vast Pacific, let alone colonize most of the islands in the Pacific in a relatively short period of time.

Rather, the expansion of Austronesians (who were to become the Polynesians) was based on deliberate exploration and colonization.

What motivated the ancient Austronesians and later Polynesians to leave relatively safe islands and search for other land? The reasons include trade, need for resources, overpopulation, exile, the desire of one tribe or subgroup to find its own land and the oldest of all reasons, curiosity and adventure.

How was it done? Invention and refinement of the sail and the large ocean-going outrigger canoe over centuries made the exploration of the Pacific possible. The quintessential Polynesian ocean-going, double hulled canoe of later centuries was a large vessel usually about 20 meters in length with one or two sails and which could also be paddled if needed. The outrigger stabilized the vessel on long ocean voyages. The craft sat high in the water, similar to a modern catamaran, allowing for faster speeds. It could hold dozens of people including large supplies of food and water.


Polynesian ocean-going vessel (2)

The prowess of the Polynesian navigators who made these journeys, some spanning thousands of miles, is generally underappreciated in modern times. It is sobering to realize that all this was occurring thousands of years before the first great ocean-going European explorers. Indeed, most European voyagers were still confined to the areas bordering the Mediterranean while this vast Polynesian expansion was occurring. Notable world explorers such as Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan lived and sailed much later during the 1500s.

These Polynesian voyages of discovery and colonization in an ocean area of ten million square miles were done without any real navigational aids including without anything as rudimentary as a compass or a sextant. Polynesian navigators used such things as the stars (what was termed a ‘star compass’ was used to find direction), knowledge of prevailing winds and sea swells, and a host of other aids, which I plan to explain in a later blog post.

Generally, islands were discovered not in order of proximity, but rather in how easy they were to reach. Polynesian navigators preferred to sail upwind on voyages of exploration. In this way, they could be assured of favorable wind conditions to sail home if they didn’t find land or ran into difficulties. The next favorable direction was across the wind, and finally the most potentially difficult direction was across the wind and downwind—as it turned out this was the direction in which New Zealand was located.

Sometimes areas of the Pacific could only be searched when the prevailing winds shifted their direction for short periods of the year.

There is some disagreement about the dates for the settlement of parts of Polynesia. One source lists the dates as follows. Samoa and Tonga, part of West Polynesia, were colonized around 1500 BC. The Marquesas Islands were colonized around 100 AD. Tahiti in East Polynesia was discovered and colonized around 500 AD, and Easter Island far to the east somewhere around the same date. But New Zealand remained undiscovered.

Which brings us to an interesting story, the first detailed explanation of the discovery of New Zealand . . .

The Great New Zealand Myth

 Beginning in the 1800s a story evolved on the discovery and colonization of New Zealand. It was based on both Maori mythology and history, and perhaps the best scientific evidence of the day. Indeed, for many years what has been characterized as ‘the Great New Zealand Myth’ was promulgated; it can even now still be found in many books.

The lengthy and detailed story went essentially as follows. Kupe, a famed Polynesian navigator, travelling from a place called Hawaiki discovered New Zealand around 950 AD. Somewhere around 1150 AD, the first Maori settlements were established, and in 1350 AD, a ‘Great Fleet’ of seven canoes, supposedly to which many present-day Maori can claim ancestry, arrived further colonizing the land. The name the Maori gave to the land now called New Zealand was Aotearoa, which means “Land of the Long White Cloud.”

In its detailed version, it is a captivating, even a romantic story. But it turns out, despite being taught to thousands of school children in primary schools throughout New Zealand for almost one hundred years up until 1970, it wasn’t quite accurate.

Historians who study these type things generally conclude that there was probably a historical figure named Kupe. Beyond that, not much can be said. It is unclear whether Hawaiki in the story represents a mythical starting point or an actual island. It certainly does not refer to the islands of Hawaii which bear a similar name.

The dates in the story were wrong.

There is no evidence for a fleet of seven canoes.

And finally, it is even questionable that Aotearoa—the name supposedly given to New Zealand by the Maori and a name I’ve grown to like while living here—was ever consistently used by the Maori before the arrival of the Europeans.

Based on all available evidence, the more accurate story is that humans originally migrated from Asia to Polynesia, and as stated above, first to West Polynesia then later to islands in East Polynesia including what are now the Cook Islands and Society Islands. It is from these latter two island groups that New Zealand’s first inhabitants are felt to have come. Again, it is felt that it was a deliberate voyage of exploration and colonization that led to the discovery of New Zealand.

Polynesian migration routes (5)

Polynesian migration routes (3)

DNA evidence from both humans and the rats that the Polynesians brought with them, support this fact that the first inhabitants came specifically from East Polynesia. Again, based on DNA and statistical studies, it is estimated a starting population of at least one hundred individuals existed, and that these individuals came from several neighboring islands.

The lack of any Maori implements or New Zealand-specific minerals being found in East Polynesia argues against there ever being any return voyages from New Zealand; those who first arrived here apparently stayed and never went back.

Finally, the consensus of all studies including archaeology, genetic analysis, carbon dating, burnt pollen remains (dating of burnt pollen at sites where there were fires presumably started by man) and the disposition of volcanic ash showers (dating man’s activities based on layering of ash from volcanic eruptions) all conclude that New Zealand was colonized in the 13th century (a date of around 1250 AD is commonly used) presumably as a result of a deliberate exploratory voyage.

One can only speculate what this first discovery must have been like. The Cook Islands are around 3200 km (2000 miles) distant from New Zealand. The Polynesian voyagers must have been at sea for at least several weeks if not longer, sailing in a direction no one had sailed before, or at least from which no one had found land and returned. It goes without saying that at least some long-distance Polynesian sea voyages must have ended in disaster—not finding land and starving to death or drowning in storm conditions.  Clouds over islands can be seen up to 100 miles away. Perhaps our courageous travelers first saw a smudge of cloud—New Zealand from out at sea often does look a long white cloud, the land itself not visible until one is much closer. In past times, sea birds were also far more plentiful. They fly off from land in the morning and return at dusk and can often be seen dozens of miles offshore. Again, it is quite possible that our voyagers saw birds journeying homeward and followed them. In any case, one can only imagine the relief of the voyagers to find not only land but a land such as this, far larger than any of the islands they originated from, and so rich with plant and animal life.

•     •     •     •     •

While I was working on this, I attempted to tell my 17-year old son some of the interesting facts about the discovery of New Zealand.

His response was, “Who cares?” “Why is that important?” “Why do I want to know that?” “Nobody cares about the Polynesians.” “The Polynesians weren’t as good as Leif Ericson.”

Regardless of the absurdity that anyone would consider anything in the movin2newzealand blog unimportant or uninteresting, his response, perhaps appropriate for his age, speaks to a certain lack of intellectual curiosity. It is the knowledge of things that don’t seem immediately relevant or important that makes our lives richer and more interesting, and makes us more interesting people.

It’s the difference between going to a distant land and seeing an intricately carved totem and saying, “That’s weird!” and seeing the same totem and knowing that that same design was repeated in countless variations for hundreds or thousands of years amongst people on scattered islands throughout the Pacific. Fathers taught their sons how to carve it with stone adzes and they in turn taught their sons, and they taught their sons. For them it had great meaning and importance, perhaps even signifying everything they lived and died for. It’s the difference between just buying kumara (sweet potato) in the grocery store here, and knowing that kumara came to Polynesia, and hence to New Zealand, from South America. Current thinking is that Polynesians must have travelled all the way to South America and returned bringing with them the sweet potato somewhere around 1000 AD. It’s the difference between just seeing a star rising at dusk over the sea, and knowing that for some Polynesian navigator a thousand years ago that singular star, out of all the thousands of stars, represented the direction homeward.

I also believe that you never know the relevance of what you learn. For example, the design of the ancient Polynesian star compass may be applied to developing a new computer program. Knowing how the Polynesians constructed their outrigger canoes may lead to an improvement in aerodynamic design. I tell my son that it is the ways that we are different than other people, the ways we have had different experiences or know different things, these are the things that may allow us to make a discovery or apply something in a way that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Today, often everyone and everything are so homogenous. Everyone knows and sees the same things. At its worst, conversation can sometimes consist of relating scenes we’ve seen in movies. What passes for knowledge is often a superficial, adolescent passionate intensity based on the sketchiest of details regarding the most current cause celébrè; people who can’t tell you what a cloud is will argue for or against climate change. Or nothing is important beyond what directly affects us, and in its extreme form, nothing is important unless it benefits us or provides us with a good laugh or a good time. Learning can be an antidote for this.

Finally, I feel connected to the things I write about. Writing about these things makes me feel more connected to the land, the sea, people and life itself. And just as the long-ago father taught his son to carve the ancient totem, all of this is some of what I wish to teach my son.


1) http://etc.ancient.eu/2013/03/26/polynesians-in-california-evidence-for-an-ancient-exchange/

2) https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/exhibition/hokulea/

3) ‪File:Polynesian Migration.svg – Wikimedia Commons
commons.wikimedia.org553 × 553Search by image


One thought on “Who Discovered New Zealand

  1. Pingback: Polynesian Navigation | movin2newzealand

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