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The Polynesian expansion across the Pacific: Maori


The first people of New Zealand are known as the Maori, meaning ‘original people’. By the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in 1769, the Maori population of New Zealand is believed to have been approximately 150 000. The Maori named their land Aotearoa, meaning ‘the land of the long white cloud’. Maori legend claimed the first explorer to reach Aotearoa was the navigator Kupe. He was accompanied by his wife, who called out he ao, meaning ‘cloud’, when she first sighted the North Island. It is said Kupe used the stars to guide him across the Pacific to find the long white cloud of New Zealand. Read more... [Chapter 8.5.3]

Hawaiki, the legendary homeland of the Maori peoples of Aotearoa/New Zealand, from whence we migrated to this land about 1000 years ago. Where is Hawaiki? Many have speculated that it lies somewhere in the Pacific, somewhere in Polynesia. Modern scholars tell us that more than 15,000 years ago we lived on the land now called China, and that from there we travelled via Taiwan and the Philippines to Indonesia. About 6,000 to 9,000 years ago we moved on through Melanesia and reached Fiji about 3,500 years ago. From there to Samoa and on to the Marquesas 2,500 years ago. Perhaps that was the limit of our eastern migration for it seems that 1,700 years ago we turned South West to Tahiti, thence to the Cook Islands and to Aotearoa/New Zealand. Where then is the legendary homeland of Hawaiki? Read more...


From the Polynesian arrival in Aotearoa to the modern day, historians divide the history of the Maori into four periods:

  • Nga kakano: The East Polynesian or Archaic period, also referred to as Nga kakano, meaning ‘the seeds’, spanned from about 800 to 1200 CE. This is the time of the first Polynesian settlers and their immediate descendants.
  • Te tipunga: The Te tipunga period, meaning ‘the growth’, began on the North Island during the thirteenth century and had spread across New Zealand by the sixteenth century. It was the era of expansion when the Maori discovered and settled the more remote areas of their land and began developing their unique cultural traditions, beliefs and art.
  • Te puawaitangaThe Classical Maori period dated from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century...This period is known as Te puawaitanga, or ‘the flowering’, because it is regarded as the time when the most beautiful Maori art was created.
  • Te huringaThe final period from the nineteenth century to the present is known as Te huringa, or the ‘turning point’, because it is the time of increased Maori contact with Europeans and the introduction of the modern world into Maori culture.

Read more... [Pg 309]

Maori History - Presentation

Maori social organisation

The iwi (tribe) was the largest political unit within Classic Maori society, although an affinity with other tribes which shared descent from the same canoe frequently gave rise to military allegiances. However, the main unit was not the iwi but the hapu (sub-tribe), a highly localised group of perhaps 500 people of common descent made up of several inter-related whanau (extended family groups) bound together by a common ancestor who might have lived perhaps 10 generations earlier. Read more...

Maori society had a clear hierarchy:

  • The ariki, or supreme chief
  • The rangatira, or chief, inherited the position from his father. He made all the major decisions in the iwi.
  • The kaumatua, or elders, appointed by the tribe because they possessed the wisdom to educate the young and guide the iwi.
  • The tohunga, or priest, held the knowledge of clan history and ancestry running back over hundreds of years.
  • The tutua, or commoners, were all the members of an iwi claiming descent from the ancestors arriving with the Great Fleet.
  • The taurekareka or mokai, slaves, were at the bottom of Maori society. They were war captives or born into slavery. 

Read more... [Chapter 8.6.1]

Māori society before European contact was stratified into three social rankings: the rangatira or kāhui-ariki (leaders), tūtūā (commoners), and taurekareka or mōkai (slaves).  Read more...


The whānau, an extended family group spanning three to four generations, continues to form the basic unit of Māori society.

Pre-European whānau
Before Māori came into contact with Europeans, whānau comprised the elders, the pākeke (senior adults such as parents, uncles and aunts), and the sons and daughters together with their spouses and children. A whānau generally numbered between 20 and 30 people. Depending on size, they could occupy one or more sleeping houses, known as wharepuni. Large whānau had their own clearly defined compound in the papakāinga (village settlement) or fortified . Whānau also had their own plot in the kūmara field, and their own fishing and hunting places, eel weirs and berry trees. The small size of the whānau and the close nature of its internal ties made it an efficient group for subsistence activities. The whānau was self-sufficient in most matters except defence when it usually depended on the iwi (tribe) or hapū (sub-tribe). Read more ...

History of Maori Social organisation

The early 19th century
Māori social organisation changed upon contact with Europeans. Some tribes migrated to coastal regions in order to benefit from trade. Those groups able to reap the greatest benefits came to dominate others. The musket wars of the 1820s and 1830s caused further disruption. Some tribes migrated long distances, resettled and displaced other tribes. For instance, Ngāti Toarangatira, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Mutunga, Te Āti Awa and Ngāti Tama migrated from Waikato and Taranaki to settle in the lands bordering Cook Strait (Te Moana-a-Raukawa). Read more...


Within the hapu each member did the job for which he or she was best suited, and rank depended not on the accumulation of goods but on the extent to which a person provided them for others. A tohunga was a 'specialist' (e.g., a woodcarver was a tohunga whakairo rakau) but few were engaged full-time on their special skill. When not so occupied they would join in the ordinary everyday work of the tribe from which even the ariki was not exempt. Read more ...

How iwi and hapū emerged

Waka origins
Tribal groups formed in different ways. Originally people identified themselves with the waka (canoe) on which their founding ancestor arrived from Hawaiki. The earliest iwi (tribes) and hapū (clans or descent groups) formed as the descendants of waka groups expanded over succeeding generations. Read more ...

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