Why wasn’t New Zealand inhabited by humans earlier?

There are some obvious answers to why New Zealand wasn’t inhabited by humans earlier, in particular our distance from  any other inhabited land. But Polynesians obviously travelled by sea a lot.

Perhaps they didn’t venture south of the Pacific islands sooner. Or maybe they tried and didn’t survive the journey. Or maybe some did survive the journey but left no sign of making it here – they may not have survived once getting here.

The question was asked at Reddit – New Zealand history: Why wasn’t new zealand inhabited by humans earlier?

I am traveling New Zealand right now, and I read the maori wikipedia page. There it says that the maori arrived only ~800 years ago. Isn’t that a wee bit late? There were people in Australia for 80000 (?)years and Oceania was inhabited for a longer while, too. Is it hard to get from Australia to New Zealand with previous boats/ships? Or were the aboriginese just uninterested in sailing?

The Easter Islands are thought to have been inhabited in the early A.D.s, for example, and they were in contact with other people for a while in the beginning – so there was traveling going on else where.

How certain can we be that the ecology was pristine when the Maori arrived? Were they in contact with other islands/people afterwards?

Aborigines in Australia are an interesting comparison. Australia was much closer to Indonesia when sea levels were lower, so was far more accessible.

Wikipedia: History of Indigenous Australians

The History of Indigenous Australians began at least 65,000 years ago when humans first populated Australia.

The origin of first humans to populate the southern continent remains a matter of conjecture and debate. Some anthropologist believe they could have arrived as a result of the earliest human migrations out of Africa. Although they likely migrated to the territory, later named Australia, though Southeast Asia they are not demonstrably related to any known Asian or Polynesian population. There is evidence of genetic and linguistic interchange between Australians in the far north and the Austronesian peoples of modern-day New Guinea and the islands, but this may be the result of recent trade and intermarriage.

At the time of first European contact, it is generally estimated that between 315,000 to 750,000 people lived in Australia, in diverse groups, but upper estimates place the total population as high as 1.25 million.

It is believed that the first early human migration to Australia was achieved when this landmass formed part of the Sahul continent, connected to the island of New Guinea via a land bridge. It is also possible that people came by island hopping via an island chain between Sulawesi and New Guinea and the other reaches North Western Australia via Timor.

The most generally accepted date for first arrival is between 40,000–80,000 years BP

A Brief Aboriginal History:

It is estimated that over 750,000 Aboriginal people inhabited the island continent in 1788.

Share Our Pride: Our shared history

Aboriginal peoples are the oldest surviving culture in the world, having established ways of managing their land and society that were sustainable and ensured good health. They have occupied Australia for at least 60,000 years. While there was significant contact and trade between the diverse peoples who inhabited this continent, there was no contact, no exchange of cultures or knowledge between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the world.

Aborigine history is fascinating, but appears to be unrelated to Aotearoa history until Cook’s voyage in 1788.

The Aborigines had a huge continent to inhabit so may not have had much if any inclination to explore far by sea, especially to the south (and New Zealand to the south east).

The Pacific migrations happened over the last 3,000-4,000 years, and are thought to have reached Aotearoa between 1200 and 1300 AD – that’s relatively recent.

Te Ara: Map of Pacific migrations

The first people to reach New Zealand were Polynesians who set out from the central Pacific on deliberate voyages of discovery in large canoes. They reached New Zealand, in the south-west corner of the Pacific, between 1200 and 1300 AD. Around 2,000–3,000 years before this, the Lapita people, ancestors of the Polynesians, had colonised the far-flung islands of the Pacific from South-East Asia.

Hawaii and Rapa Nui were distant from the bulk of Pacific Islands and were inhabited relatively late in history, but well before Aotearoa.

It took European explorers quite a while to venture down our way. Abel Tasman got here in 1642 but that may have been more because of weather than intent.

Wikipedia: Abel Tasman

Tasman sailed from Batavia on 14 August 1642 and arrived at Mauritius on 5 September 1642.

Because of the prevailing winds Mauritius was chosen as a turning point. After a four-week stay on the island both ships left on 8 October using the Roaring Forties to sail east as fast as possible. On 7 November snow and hail influenced the ship’s council to alter course to a more north-eastern direction, expecting to arrive one day at the Solomon Islands.

On 24 November 1642 Abel Tasman reached and sighted the west coast of Tasmania,

Proceeding south Tasman skirted the southern end of Tasmania and turned north-east. He then tried to work his two ships into Adventure Bay on the east coast of South Bruny Island where he was blown out to sea by a storm.

The next day, an attempt was made to land in North Bay. However, because the sea was too rough the carpenter swam through the surf and planted the Dutch flag.

For two more days, he continued to follow the east coast northward to see how far it went. When the land veered to the north-west at Eddystone Point, he tried to keep in with it but his ships were suddenly hit by the Roaring Forties howling through Banks Strait.

The impenetrable wind wall indicated that here was a strait, not a bay. Tasman was on a mission to find the Southern Continent, not more islands, so he abruptly turned away to the east and continued his continent-hunting.

He journeyed eastwards well south of the Australian continent.

After some exploration, Tasman had intended to proceed in a northerly direction but as the wind was unfavourable he steered east. The expedition endured an extremely rough voyage and in one of his diary entries Tasman credited his compass, claiming it was the only thing that had kept him alive.

On 13 December 1642 they sighted land on the north-west coast of the South Island, New Zealand, becoming the first Europeans to do so.

“We believe that this is the mainland coast of the unknown Southland’. Tasman thought he had found the western side of the long-imagined Terra Australis that stretched across the Pacific to the Southern tip of South America.

After sailing north, then east for five days, the expedition anchored about 7 km from the coast off what is now believed to have been Golden Bay.

Tasman then sailed north up the west coast of the North Island and continued north to the Pacific Islands.

While the location of some land of New Zealand was now known to Europeans, it was not until James Cook got here on 6 October 1769 that they came down our way and recorded finding land.


Leave a comment


  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  23rd December 2018

    The most likely earlier European discoverers were the Portugese and maybe Spanish when dividing the world up between them. But surviving and reporting their discovery may have been a step too far.

    • Ray

       /  23rd December 2018

      It is worth noting that the Azore islands which are mid Atlantic were not settled till 1450 despite being fertile and having a good climate.
      Sometimes it just takes a while to find islands and settle them enough to make an mark that can be seen now.

  2. kluelis

     /  23rd December 2018

    Geographically NZ is so far away from any where. No people in Antarctic No population pressure in Australia + South America too far away. Early Maori were probably just blown off course southward. No mystery really. Took us till 1969 to get to the moon and will be a bit longer to get to Mars. Again no surprises here in fact Elementary, my dear What-Son 🙂

  3. Gezza

     /  23rd December 2018

    Who cares? They didn’t. Or if any did, they didn’t take any videos and post them on Farcebook and the place took a lot longer to get untidy.

  4. NOEL

     /  23rd December 2018

    If the map is correct why would anyone want to leave Tubuai for the unknown.

    • Griff.

       /  23rd December 2018

      Trades run east west.
      Run to far west and you go south to pick up the westerly’s to get home .

      Go far enough south and you hit NZ.
      Informed guess Polynesians run to far west and hit Melanesia were they were not accepted
      to get away they went south to pick up the westerlys towards home .
      Due to weather got blown far enough south to find nz .

    • Duker

       /  23rd December 2018

      Why leave Tubai ?
      Increased population , warring tribes . When Cook arrived there in Tahiti and took chief Tupaia to NZ with him, it was because Tupaia was involved in internal conflict.
      It was much more complicated than that

  5. Seabird

     /  23rd December 2018

    If you read some of the alternative histories of NZ, and don’t just rely on Wikipedia, which any one can edit, it shows that there were people here prior to the first Maori migration. See Forbidden History, by John Aldworth. A fascinating read, Also, on YouTube,the documentary series, Skeletons in the Cupboard.

  1. Polynesians and Australia (and more) | Your NZ

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