Māori immigration and population

This story was on 1 News last night: Story of Polynesian voyagers who first discovered New Zealand told through animation

Long before Captain James Cook, great Polynesian voyagers first discovered New Zealand.

Now, after centuries of neglecting to tell the story of the great Pacific migration, Dunedin animator Ian Taylor is gifting the story to the nation.

Mr Taylor, the founder of Animation Research Ltd, has created a free tool that replicates the journey of revered navigator Tupaia.

“It’s incredible because I turn 70 next year and I’m only just learning this story now,” he said.

After studying the topic for decades, Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, from the University of Otago, said the topic has been ignored for too long.

“[The voyage was] incredibly complex, and that is the scientific knowledge of Pacific people, of some of those very skilled navigators,” she said.

“It hasn’t been incorporated in our history books, and that’s sad generally for world history, but it’s particularly sad for New Zealanders.”

The tool will be used in schools around the country.

It is incredible how little we were taught about Māori history at school half a century go, and since, so this is a good project

The New Zealand wars are getting more attention now too. RNZ – Te Pūtake o te Riri: Fierce welcome for Ardern and Māori ministers

Hundreds of Māori toa, warriors, have given Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Māori ministers a fierce welcome to Ōwae Marae in Waitara for the commemorations of the New Zealand Land Wars.

Te Pūtake o te Riri, He Rā Maumahara is a national initiative to commemorate the New Zealand land wars and raise awareness of the events that shaped the country’s modern history.

Timed to coincide with the anniversary of the United Tribes of Aotearoa’s declaration of independence in 1831, Taranaki is this year’s focus after the inaugural event was held in Northland in 2018.

After a pōwhiri which ended with Ms Ardern being offered a white feather or raukura as a symbol of peace, the Prime Minister said she did not favour a national day of commemoration.

“Putting the teaching of New Zealand history into our schools, into our education system, for all our young people to learn, I think that is the most significant and important thing that we can do going forward.”

Key event organiser Ruakere Hond said the New Zealand Wars have always been about Waitara, where the first shots in the conflict were fired.

In their haka pōwhiri, the warriors paid homage to all their tūpuna who died in the New Zealand Wars around Aotearoa.

After the official welcome RNZ’s NZ Wars: Stories of Waitara series and panel discussions have been launched.

So good to get more of our own history better known.

It is believed (based on a broad range of evidence) that New Zealand’s first permanent settlements were established between 1200-1300.

NZ History:  Pacific voyaging and discovery

It was only around 3000 years ago that people began heading eastwards from New Guinea and the Solomon Islands further into the Pacific.

Great skill and courage was needed to sail across vast stretches of open sea. Between 1100 and 800 BCE these voyagers spread to Fiji and West Polynesia, including Tonga and Samoa.

Around 1000 years ago people began to inhabit the central East Polynesian archipelagos, settling the closest first.

New Zealand was the last significant land mass outside the Arctic and Antarctic to be settled.

Around the end of the first millennium CE Polynesians sailed east into what is now French Polynesia, before migrating to the Marquesas and Hawaii, Rapa Nui/Easter Island and New Zealand, the far corners of the ‘Polynesian triangle’.

The direction and timing of settlement

A broad range of evidence – including radiocarbon dating, analysis of pollen (which measures vegetation change) and volcanic ash, DNA evidence, genealogical dating and studies of animal extinction and decline – suggests that New Zealand’s first permanent settlements were established between 1250 and 1300.

These migrants, who sailed in double-hulled canoes from East Polynesia (specifically the Society Islands, the southern Cook Islands and the Austral Islands in French Polynesia), were the ancestors of the Māori people.

Sketch of Double-hulled voyaging canoe

British Library Board. Ref: 23920 f.48

This double canoe was sketched off the New Zealand coast in 1769 by Herman Spöring. It has a double spritsail rig and appears to be made from two canoes of different length and design lashed together. Archaeologist Atholl Anderson argues that the double spritsail was the most likely type of sailing rig used by the Polynesian voyagers who reached New Zealand in the 13th century.

It had earlier been believed there had been one one way ‘great migration’, with Aotearoa being discovered by chance. But it is now thought that there were many voyages, some of them in a return direction.

It makes sense that when Aotearoa was first discovered (by Kupe?) the discoverers returned to tell of the land they found, much more land than the islands they came from

Although it was once believed that the ancestors of Māori came to New Zealand in a single ‘great fleet’ of seven canoes, we now know that many canoes made the perilous voyage. Through stories passed down the generations, tribal groups trace their origins to the captains and crew of more than 40 legendary vessels, from the Kurahaupō at North Cape to the Uruao in the South Island.

If there was say an average of 50 people in each waka, times 40 that makes possibly about 2000 immigrants. There must have been many Polynesian people who immigrated here.

TEARA: Population

At the beginning of the last century New Zealand was occupied by a Maori population estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000, and by about 50 Europeans.

The actual size of the pre-European Maori population is uncertain. Captain Cook, whose first visit to New Zealand was in 1769, estimated that there were about 100,000 Maoris, but he did not visit some of the most populous inland centres, and his estimate was almost certainly low.

Can a population increase from the low thousands to hundreds of thousands in five hundred years?

Simon Chapple (NZH): How many Māori lived in Aotearoa when Captain Cook arrived?

An important question puzzling historians is how many Māori lived in Aotearoa at the time of Cook’s arrival. This question goes to the heart of the negative impacts of European contact on the size and health of the 19th-century Māori population, which subsequently bottomed out in the 1890s at just over 40,000 people.

The conventional wisdom is that there were about 100,000 Māori alive in 1769, living on 268,000sq km of temperate Aotearoa. This is a much lower population density (0.37 people per square kilometre) than densities achieved on tropical and much smaller Pacific Islands.

The Cook population estimate

It was published in a 1778 book written by Johann Forster, the naturalist on Cook’s second expedition of 1772-1775. Forster’s estimate is a guess, innocent of method. He suggests 100,000 Māori as a round figure at the lower end of likelihood. His direct observation of Māori was brief, in the lightly populated South Island, far from major northern Māori population centres.

Later visitors had greater direct knowledge of the populous coastal northern parts of New Zealand. They also made population estimates. Some were guesses like Forster’s. Others were based on a rough method. Their estimates range from 130,000 (by early British trader Joel Polack) to over 500,000 Māori (by French explorer Dumont D’Urville), both referring to the 1820s.

A second method takes the population figure from the first New Zealand-wide Māori population census of 1858, of about 60,000 people. It works this number backwards over 89 years to 1769, making assumptions about the rate of annual population decline between 1769 and 1858.

Still only a rough estimate.

The third method used to estimate a population of 100,000 Māori predicts the number forward from first arrival in New Zealand. Prediction requires a minimum of three parameters. These are the arrival date of Māori in New Zealand, the size of the founding population and the prehistoric population growth rate to 1769.

The current consensus is that voyagers from Eastern Polynesia arrived in New Zealand between 1230 and 1280 AD and then became known as Māori. However, even a 50-year difference in arrival dates can make a large difference to an end population prediction. Geneticists have estimated the plausible size of the Māori female founding population as between 50 to 230 women.

That implies far fewer immigrants than my 2000 stab.

The high population estimate is therefore nearly five times the size of the low estimate. Such a broad range is meaningless.

The third big unknown of the prediction method is the growth rate.

Indeed, historically recorded population growth rates for Pacific islands with small founding populations could be exceptionally high. For example, on tiny, resource-constrained Pitcairn Island, population growth averaged an astounding 3 per cent annually over 66 years between 1790 and 1856.

Arguments for rapid prehistoric population growth run up against other problems. Skeletal evidence seems to show that prehistoric Māori female fertility rates were too low; and mortality, indicated by a low average adult age at death, was too high to generate rapid population growth.

This low-fertility finding has always been puzzling, given high Māori fertility rates in the latter 19th century. Equally, archaeological findings of a low average adult age at death have been difficult to reconcile with numbers of elderly Māori observed in accounts of early explorers.

However, recent literature on using skeletal remains to estimate either female fertility or adult age at death is sceptical that this evidence can determine either variable in a manner approaching acceptable reliability. So high growth paths cannot be ruled out.

All of this is very vague.

Because of resulting uncertainties in the three key parameters and the 500-year-plus forecast horizon, the plausible population range for Māori in 1769 is so broad as to make any estimate meaningless.

Perhaps one reason why not much pre-European history was taught is that not much was known or recorded in a form that could be taught, especially nationally.

It wouldn’t have helped that European immigrants were more interested in their own history, pre-immigration and post immigration. And most teachers, and most pupils, were of European origin.

While there is a lot more Māori history that can and should be taught (and available to those who want to inform themselves), there also seems too be a lot of research required to fond out more about the early history of Aotearoa.

Leave a comment


  1. Gezza

     /  29th October 2019

    Yes, I saw the item on the first Polynesian voyagers to New Zealand. They were a stone age culture but nevertheless had the skills to build survivable oceangoing canoes & be able to successfully navigate them over vast distances, so in fact their knowledge of sailing & navigation, for the time, & given the small population sizes & lack of access to thousands of years of European, Middle Eastern & Asian history, mining & manufacturing techniques, & accumulated knowledge, was reasonably sophisticated.

    On the teaching of more Maori history, yes I too think this is a good idea & overdue but I imagine coming up with agreed curriculums might get problematic. How do you deal with kupapa Maori, for example, when to some Maori they are I think still reviled as traitors, whereas in some cases they were simply revenging the selves via alliances on old enemies, & in other cases they just had no difficulty co-existing, adopting Pakeha beneficial trade & technology, & agreeing to Pakeha settlement for mutual benefit.

    I think this was the case with one or more hapu iwi around the Waikanae area, where there were joint pakeha & Maori settlements almost adjacent to each other.

  2. Corky

     /  29th October 2019

    We were taught Maori history at my schools, especially about the great migration. We even had a 104 year old kuia come and speak to us. Yes, I wouldn’t call it in depth study, but we had to make a whare in the classroom and we learnt stuff over a six week period. Of course nowdays a whare in the classroom would be culturally insensitive unless a kaumatua blessed it after having had his bank account blessed to the tune of say 100 bucks koha.

    I can trace my lineage right back to Kiwa and Pawa. Pawa was the captain of the Horouta, Kiwa the tohunga. If I remember correctly the old people told me it was a very sacred canoe and was unusual in that it carried women.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  29th October 2019

      How did the people keep the population going if it was unusual to have women in the canoe ?

    • Gezza

       /  29th October 2019

      That’s odd, I just looked those two up & they came on the Horouta. There’s a claim (not credible – debunked) that the Horouta & the Takitimu are the same canoe, renamed.
      It mentions in tbe debunking that:

      Takitimu was known throughout the island to be a very sacred canoe. Unlike other canoes of the Migration, she was not permitted to carry women, children nor cooked food, while Horouta was known to have brought females and cooked food. Therefore the story of the Takitimu and Horouta being one and the same will have to go by the board.


      • Corky

         /  29th October 2019

        Correct – Kiwa and Pawa were on the Horouata. I was never ever told Takitimu and Horouta were the same canoe. They have always been separate identities.

        • Gezza

           /  29th October 2019

          My point is, that researcher says because Takitimu was sacred it was not permitted to carry women. So doesn’t that suggest that if Horouta (not Horouata) carried women – as was common – it could not have been sacred?

        • Corky

           /  29th October 2019


          ”Correct – Kiwa and Pawa were on the Horouata. I was never ever told Takitimu and Horouta were the same canoe. They have always been separate identities.”


          ”My point is, that researchers says because Takitimu was sacred it was not permitted to carry women. So doesn’t that suggest that if Horouta (not Horouata) carried women… it wouldn’t be sacred ”

          I thought I would test you one more time just to see if you had changed. You seem to take great delight in being ‘picky’ and trying to look down from some
          great intellectual Ivory tower.

          Incidentally, that’s a good and fair question you ask. If you want the answer do your own research.

          • Gezza

             /  29th October 2019

            When Al’s not posting, Corks, I only have you to amuse me. I’m not quite sure exactly what’s cranked you up now, I never claim to be an intellectual (though I don’t disparage those who are for no reason). I was lucky to scrape in by a hair’s breadth to get UE.

            But I did do a bit more research before posting the above & didn’t find any confirmation there was anything sacred about the Horouta. And it seems it wasn’t unusual for the canoes to carry women.

            That’s all. I don’t care enuf to investigate further.

          • Kitty Catkin

             /  29th October 2019

            Nice try; make an ignorant error and then claim that it’s done on purpose to see if people notice and claim that you knew that when someone challenges it.

            Was the canoe sacred or not ? It can’t be both sacred and NOT sacred at the same time.

            Being descended from both of those men seems like over-egging the pudding.Can you prove it ?

            • Kitty Catkin

               /  29th October 2019

              Who was Pawa ? I’ve heard of Paoa and Kiwa.

            • Gezza

               /  29th October 2019

              The story goes that Kahukura, a man from Hawaiki, introduced kūmara (sweet potato), to the locals who had never had anything like it before. In order to obtain more kūmara back in Hawaiki Toi gave the canoe to Kahukura. Upon gathering the coveted vegetables, Kahukura sent them back on the Horouta, commanded by Pāoa (or Pāwa).

          • Gezza

             /  29th October 2019

            (Oh, the ‘not Horouata’ thing? I went looking for the Horouata by accident myself (my error) & luckily Google found the Horouta, so I quickly realised that was the name you’d given. Put your pop gun back in its holster.)

  3. Duker

     /  29th October 2019

    It’s all fascinating stuff. I’m making my way through the Journal of the Polynesian Society JPS on archeology of Marquesas, part of French Polynesia but much further north than Society group Tahiti and Raiaetia. As these are ‘larger’ volcanic islands rather than just attols around a lagoon, they were able to support populations before Europeans in the 10s of thousands. Some suggest the Marquesas were the origin of the migration northwards to Hawaii

    • Corky

       /  29th October 2019

      I don’t know if it’s still custom, but in the Marquesas when a boy reached puberty he had his first sexual experience with a female relative, usually an aunty.

      The Journal Of The Polynesian Society is high brow reading, Duker. How long have you been reading this esteemed publication?

      I personally believe Maori came from Tahiti..not the Cooks or Hawaii. However, many Maori dispute that even though some migration is accepted as coming from Tahiti.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  30th October 2019

        The Takitimu left from Muri lagoon in Rarotonga according to the Cook Islanders.


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