Early Maori

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Maoris are regarded as the indigenous people of New Zealand. They are of Polynesian descent. Calling their new homeland Aotearoa ("land of the long white cloud"), they Maori settled in communities called kaingas, mostly located on North Island and have passed on their culture and history orally from past generations to the present. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

Owing to the absence of written records, it is impossible to give any accurate date for their arrival, but according to Maori oral traditions, they migrated from other Pacific islands to New Zealand several centuries before any Europeans came, with the chief Maori migration taking place about 1350. It seems likely, however, that the Maoris arrived from Southeast Asia as early as the end of the 10th century. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, 2006]

Genetic and archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of the Maori originally set out from mainland Southeast Asia around 6,000 years ago, hopped from island to island, starting with Taiwan, and finally making it to New Zealand. Genetic studies indicate that closest genetic relatives of the Maori are found in Taiwan.

Christopher Latham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “New Zealand was evidently settled in three waves by travelers from Polynesian islands in A.D. 950, 1150, and 1350. The early arrivals, the Moriori, subsisted mainly by fishing and hunting the moa and other birds that are now extinct. The final (pre-European) immigration was that of the "seven canoes of the great fleet." The people of the great fleet assimilated the original inhabitants by marriage and conquest. The immigrants of 1350 arrived with their own domesticated plants and animals (several of which did not survive the transition from a tropical to a temperate climate), and they subsequently developed into the Maori of the present historical period. [Source: Christopher Latham, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991]

Maori Beliefs About Their Origin

All Maoris believe they are descendants of people who arrived on seven great canoes that came from the mother island of Hawaiki in A.D. 1350. Hawaiki is most likely Tahiti or one of the Cook Islands.

According to Maori legend, New Zealand was created by the demigod Maui, who persuaded his brothers to sail to unknown waters south of their homeland on a fishing trip. Using his mother's jawbone for a hook and his own blood for bait, Maui caught a colossal fish (the North Island of New Zealand).

The Maori settled primarily on the North Island of New Zealand, which they called “Te Ika a Maui” (the Fish of Maui). The South Island is referred to as both “Te Wai Pounamu” (the Water of Jade) and Maui's canoe.

Adele Whyte, the Tuapapa Putaiao Maori Fellow at Victoria University in Wellington, said: "The story I was told when I was growing up is that there was a fleet of seven great waka (canoes) that came to New Zealand," she said. "Every tribe knows which waka their ancestors arrived in. My ancestors were in a waka called Takitimu. There might have been 20 people travelling in a canoe the size of a waka. Seven waka, that's about 140 people. And if, as we think, about half or 56 of these people happen to be women, it does seem to tie in."

Genetic Markers Say Maori Men and Women from Different Homelands

Male and female ancestors of today's Maori appear to have originated from different places according to genetic analysis by Adele Whyte at Victoria University in Wellington, and her supervisor Professor Geoff Chambers. ABC-TV reported; By comparing the DNA of people from Asia, across the Pacific Ocean and New Zealand, Whyte and Chambers have revealed a 'living genetic map' of ancient Maori migration routes. However the research also brings startlingly new evidence that as Maori ancestors migrated one group of islands to the next, men from Melanesian communities joined the boats. This changed the genetic mix, and lead to the differences observed in the genetic make-up of today's Maori men and women. [Source: Mark Horstman, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), March 27, 2003

The research involved two separate genetic mapping processes. The Southeast Asian homeland was confirmed by Chambers' research into the frequency of two different genes that influence the body's reaction to alcohol. He found that while Asian people have both gene types, Maori and Pacific Islanders have inherited only one. He looked back along the trail of migration to try and work out where the gene was lost. The indigenous people from Taiwan have both genes, but a lower frequency of one - the very gene that the Maori now lack. "We think this one was lost at the first step of migration, when people left what is now Taiwan," Chambers told ABC Science Online.

The second mapping process involved Whyte's examination of sex-linked genetic markers, namely mitochondrial DNA in women, and Y-chromosomes in men. The research found that in addition to the alcohol genes, female Maori have other genetic markers which confirm their ancient Asian origin. To her surprise, however, the men have genetic markers that show a Melanesian ancestry. "As a result of intermarriage along the migration trail, the signatures of the mitochondrial DNA from women have stayed more 'island south-east Asian', and the Y-chromosomes are more Melanesian," Whyte told ABC Science Online "We think both men and women set off together, and recruited local guides who were probably men. Women stayed with the south-east Asian populations, and Melanesian men were recruited along the way."

Whyte also analysed the 'haplotypes' (groups of closely linked genes) carried on mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited only through the female line. Each population has a unique range of haplotypes. While Europeans have over 100 haplotypes in a particular region of DNA, studies so far have only found four different Maori haplotypes in the same region. "The reason for this difference is what we call a genetic bottleneck. When people leave an island to go to the next island, obviously not everybody gets on the boat, so some of the genetic diversity is being lost," she said. "Some of the maternal lineages may not have got on the boat, so they're not carried on to the next place." Whyte has now identified 10 haplotypes in New Zealand Maori. "From that we have worked out that 56 women came to New Zealand to create the diversity of today's population," she added. Her conuslions are consistent

Arrival of the Maori in New Zealand Revealed in Antarctic Ice

Researchers have found soot preserved in Antarctic ice that they have linked to fires set in New Zealand by Māori settlers. Ice cores drilled in an island off the Antarctic Peninsula preserved soot from around A.D. 1300 which originated the ice 6,000 kilometers away in New Zealand. [Source: New York Times, October 9, 2021

Kate Evans wrote in Eos Science News: When the Polynesian ancestors of the Māori first arrived in New Zealand, they used fire to clear some of the forest for agriculture, to facilitate hunting, to claim occupation of territories, and to honor their ancestor Mahuika, the goddess of fire. The smoke from those fires traveled much farther than anyone imagined. A recent study in Nature, using an array of ice core records from Antarctica, has revealed that black carbon from those fires was carried on the westerly winds halfway around the Southern Ocean and deposited in the ice covering an island off the Antarctic Peninsula. [Source: Kate Evans, Eos Science News, American Geophysical Union, October 26, 2021

Lead author Joe McConnell from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nev., said the research team didn’t set out to look for anthropogenic impacts in Antarctica. They planned to map natural variations in soot deposition in the ice over the past 2,000 years using a sophisticated analysis technique developed in the DRI lab. The research was part of an effort to improve climate models. (Black carbon aerosols absorb light and contribute to atmospheric warming.) But when McConnell and his colleagues compared the ice core from James Ross Island to five others from different parts of the Antarctic mainland, they found something unexpected. For the first 1,300 years, the ice cores all told the same story. But around 700 years ago—1297, plus or minus 30 years, to be precise—the core taken from the peninsular island sharply diverged from the rest. There, black carbon levels almost tripled over the ensuing centuries, whereas the ice cores from continental Antarctica stayed relatively stable.

Atmospheric modeling (using the powerful flexible particle dispersion model) showed that for the soot particles to have landed only on the Antarctic Peninsula—which sticks up like a thumb into the prevailing westerly flow—they had to have come from a landmass located south of 40° latitude. The only possible candidates were Patagonia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. “Anything that’s emitted at 40°–60° south is going to get caught up in that westerly belt and make a big doughnut around Antarctica,” said McConnell. “The beauty of this whole study is that the James Ross Island ice core in the peninsula is at least 1,000 kilometers away from any potential burning area.…It’s an unusual situation where the record is extremely sensitive to any changes in emissions from those three locations.”

When the scientists looked into the charcoal records from lake sediments in those places, they found that wetter climate conditions in both Tasmania and Patagonia during the past 700 years actually led to less burning than usual. Charcoal records from New Zealand, however, showed the opposite: a dramatic fire spike after 1300, just when the black carbon started appearing in the Antarctic Peninsula ice core. It’s also roughly when archaeological evidence suggests the first Māori arrived.

Life of the Early Maori

The Maori were originally settled primarily in the northern parts of North Island, New Zealand. South Island was much more sparsely settled. The Maori ate “kumara” (a kind of sweet potato), taro, gourds, yams and rats which they brought to New Zealand from their home islands in Polynesia. They also ate moas (ostrich-size birds that are now extinct), other birds (also extinct), seals, and fish. Food was kept in bird-house-like storehouses, called “whata” or “patuka”, that were elevated on a single post.

Initially, the Maori had some trouble adapting to New Zealand's temperate climate which was much cooler and wetter than the climate of the South Pacific Islands they originated from. They lost kumara and other plants to frost and found they could they could not plant crops year round as did on their home islands. Eventually they learned to store tubers in pits and plant the shoots in the spring. They also replaced their traditional bark clothing with woven-flax garments and made their homes smaller and warmer.

Archaeology magazine reported: On private Great Mercury Island off the northeast coast, archaeologists are excavating an early Maori site — dating to the second half of the 14th century, perhaps just decades after Polynesian seafarers first arrived. It appears to be a small fishing settlement, marked by thousands of stone artifacts, as well as fishhooks made from sea mammal teeth and the bones of moa, the large native birds that were hunted to extinction 100 years after human arrival. A number of oceanside sites such as this one are at risk from coastal erosion. [Source: Samir S. Patel, Archaeology magazine, November-December 2015]

In 2014, a “large piece of a 600-year-old canoe emerged from a beach on South Island. The canoe suggests connections with places across the South Pacific. It is made of local black pine, but employs a sophisticated oceangoing design with ribs and a girder, and has a carving of a turtle on the hull. Both the design and carving were unknown or rare in New Zealand at the time, and represent some sort of cultural continuity with the rest of Polynesia. [Source: Samir S. Patel Archaeology magazine, January-February 2015]

Maori Warfare

Warfare played a big role in Maori life. Boys were expected to become warriors; fighting was tied to Maori cosmology and spirituality; and land disputes and voyages of conquest were commonplace. The traditional Maori weapons included the “patu” (jade club) and “taiaha” (fighting staff). From an early age Maori males were taught it is better to "die like a shark, fighting to the end than to give up limply like an octopus."

"The occasion of war" for the Maori, wrote historian Jack Keegan, "was always a desire for revenge, which might or might not be satisfied by a raiding party finding or killing a single member of the enemy. Maori war parties could do battle in a very brutal way. After a public meeting in which 'offenses could be recounted vehemently,' warlike songs chanted and weapons displayed, the war party would set out." [Source: “History of Warfare” by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

"Male children from the earliest age," Keegan wrote, "were taught that insult, to say nothing of robbery or murder, was unforgivable, and the Maori were implacable in storing up a memory of a grievance, sometimes from generation to generation, that was satisfied when the enemy was killed, his body eaten and the head mounted on a palisade of the fortified village, where it would be symbolically insulted."

Maori began their encounters with feints and postures to size up their enemy. This led to human wave charges. "The great aim of these fast-running warriors," Keegan wrote, "was to chase straight on and never stop, only striking one blow at one man, so as to cripple him, so that those behind should be sure overtake and finish him. It was not uncommon for one man strong and swift of foot, when the enemy was fairly routed, to stab with a light spear ten or a dozen men in such a way as to insure their being overtaken and killed."

The Maori practiced slavery and cannibalism and introduced tattoos to the rest of the world. Slaves were usually captured enemies from different tribes. They were often the victims of human sacrifices, which were held to secure the help of the gods. In 1835, the peaceful Moriori people of Chaltham island 500 miles off the coast of New Zealand were slaughtered and enslaved by the Maori.

Maoris at the Time of the European Arrival

There were between 100,000 to 300,000 Maori living in New Zealand when the first Europeans arrived in the 17th century. The Maori population was divided into 40 tribes that lived in and around hilltop forts with ditches, strong palisades and large food storage chambers. The Maori had no not developed siege warfare so these forts were regarded as secure. [Source: “History of Warfare” by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

When Captain Cook visited New Zealand in 1769 the indigenous population was probably between 200,000 and 250,000. The population declined after contact with Europeans, but it began to recover at the beginning of this century and now approaches 300,000.

In the 17th century, it is believed that lifespan for the average Maori was only 35 years. They were taller than the Europeans, with Maori men averaging 175 centimeters compared to 160 centimeters for European men living at that time.

In 2017, Archaeology magazine reported; The remains of a Maori village dating to between 1600 and 1800 were uncovered during a road construction project near Papamoa on the country’s North Island. Several hundred archaeological features of the settlement were exposed, including crop storage pits, cooking pits, and postholes from several large Maori communal houses known as whares. The discovery is not only providing researchers with new insights into the layout and organization of native communities, but is also revealing aspects of daily life. [Source: Jason Urbanus Archaeology magazine, November-December 2017]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania, edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991; New Zealand Tourism Board, Archaeology magazine, PNAS, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Reuters, Associated Press, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

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