Early explorers

Page 2 – Polynesian explorers

Polynesian navigators

The origins of Māori have been debated since Westerners first entered the Pacific Ocean. During his explorations of Polynesia, Cook and his scientists noted the similarities in appearance, custom, and language of the Polynesian people, suggesting a common and comparatively recent settlement of that region; more distant origins, he suggested, probably lay in the 'Malay' or 'East Indies' regions.

Others suggested that Polynesians originally came from Europe or western Asia - a view that persisted into the twentieth century. Some people saw biblical origins, placing Māori origins within the setting of the Old Testament. Nineteenth century science suggested the Aryan Polynesian, with India as the Māori homeland.

The question of when Māori first arrived in New Zealand has also been hotly debated, as has the question of a pre-Māori population. Māori oral tradition tells of an ancestral home of Hawaiki, which today is believed to be in the areas of the Southern Cook and Society islands.

Ethnologists, (led by Percy Smith) 'tidied up' Māori oral tradition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and gave the date of first Polynesian contact with New Zealand at 750 AD; the 'great fleet' (which departed from the Tahitian region) arrived in 1350 AD. Supported by Elsdon Best and the Māori scholar Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa), Smith's ideas became widely accepted by Māori and Pākehā alike, remaining dominant until at least the 1970s.

By the 1950s, new scientific method such as radiocarbon dating, together with new ethnological research demolished Smith's account, suggesting that Māori may have arrived as early as 800 AD. More recently, radiocarbon dating of archeological sites, DNA analysis, and canoe reconstructions have furthered the debate. It is now believed that Māori arrived at different times, from several points in East Polynesia, in the late 13th century.

Further information:

  • Pacific Migrations and ideas of Māori migration entries from Te Ara: the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, offer a detailed overview of the history and theory of Māori origin, Polynesian navigation and exploration of New Zealand. Also see entries on canoe navigation which looks at the science and theory of early Polynesian navigation; canoe tradition which looks at the Māori tradition, oral history and ancestry. They also give an interesting overview of the challenges of separating myth from tradition. First peoples in Māori tradition focuses on stories about the emergence of human beings from the natural environment, how these fit within maori tradition, and also Hawaiki - the traditional place of Māori origin.
  • Polynesian Voyaging Society - Founded in Hawaii in 1973, the Polynesian Voyaging Society built replica canoes and sailed them using traditional navigation methods. They also have a good website on Kupe, and the story of his discovery of New Zealand.
How to cite this page

'Polynesian explorers', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/explorers/polynesian-explorers, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 18-Jun-2018