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maori chief

A Maori chief as seen by James Cook and his crew during his first Pacific voyage in 1769

When Abel Tasman arrived in New Zealand in 1642 he found the land inhabited… but the people that were here, the Maori, were not aboriginal; they had traveled here and settled.

So where had they come from?

The answer to that question troubled historians for a long time, but the convergence of oral traditions, Archaeology and most recently DNA analysis has removed doubt.

The Maori are descendants of migrants from Eastern Polynesia. But the islands in that remote region of the pacific are small and widespread, and humanity hadn’t independently evolved on each of them… they too had been settled by immigrants. So where had those Eastern Polynesian people come from?

We need to look further back into history to understand how the Pacific was populated. Humankind, as we recognise them, evolved in Africa. Once they were well established in Africa, people started spreading out around the world. Initially the population followed the coasts to occupy all of Africa, Asia and Europe. At that time, North America was joined to Russia, and people moved across that land bridge to populate the America’s.

whole pacific

The Pacific ocean, seen from space

By about 65,000 years ago people had established themselves in South-East Asia, and we can follow the progress of the distant Maori ancestors from there.

From mainland Asia people moved on through New Guinea and into Australia about 45,000 years ago, those people becoming the Aboriginies that we know today. At this, human expansion halted for quite some time, until around 3500 years ago, when they ventured out into the Pacific.

It is hard to understand how difficult it was to populate the Pacific without understanding just how vast it is, and how tiny are the specks of land within it.

The illustration on the left is a view taken from Google Earth. It shows half of the Earth, with the view centered over the Pacific Ocean; national boundaries are highlighted in yellow.

In the half of the globe shown here, almost all of it is ocean; only a tiny proportion is land. There are islands there, in fact there are whole island nations there, but mostly they are so small that they are completely invisible at this scale. In this view the coastline is shown in yellow. Only a few of the Pacific islands are large enough to colour in even a single pixel.

The scale of the ocean that had to be traversed prevented people settling these islands for another 40,000 years.


The first expansion into the Pacific ocean

Approximately 1500 BC seafarers finally ventured into the Pacific, and settled on the relatively large islands of the Solomons, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. In comparison to the rest of the pacific, these islands are relatively close to each other. From New Guinea, these islands were reached by ‘island hopping’ the relatively short distances between safe havens.

But these islands remained at the limit of what could be achieved with the available sailing technology, and navigational skills. The islands that lay beyond were much smaller, and much, much further apart.

To venture further required vessels that could remain at sea for up to a month, and navigational skills that were precise enough to successfully locate tiny, low lying islands, very many days distant.

The chart, from 1862, on the left, indicates all the known islands in the Asia/Pacific region, but has the advantage of not showing them in their true scale. The islands first occupied when people moved from the mainland out into the Pacific are labeled and ringed in green for clarity. Clicking on the chart will open a larger version of the image.

Eastern Polynesia

The second expansion into the Pacific ocean

It took approximately a thousand years to develop the skills and technologies required to journey deeper into the Pacific and return. But then, from about 100 AD onwards, Eastern Polynesia was settled relatively quickly, from West to East. In quick succession the Cook Island, Society Islands and Marquesas’ were all occupied, followed by the even smaller and more remote island groups.

Over the next few hundred years the Eastern Polynesian Island groups developed a common culture that was quite distinct from it’s origins in Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, but some facets of their oral history remained constant. Throughout the Pacific there is the common theme of ‘Maui’… the original Pacific explorer.

Note that the text here says that Eastern Polynesia was settled ‘West to East’.

New Zealand lies to the south. New Zealand was the last part of the Pacific to be settled, indeed, it was the last part of the hospitable world to be peopled. New Zealand was settled by people from Eastern Polynesia. The first deliberate visits occurred around 850 AD, followed by a wave of deliberate and planned migration from about 1300.

That the Maori descend from people from these tiny Islands is these days, fairly well established. Historic artifacts found in New Zealand more resemble those found in the Tahitian Group and the Marquesas’ than those from Samoa, Tonga and Fiji; there is a distinct difference in the motif’s used in carving and decoration. Recent research also shows that there is relatively little genetic variation between Maori and Eastern Polynesian DNA in comparison to other populations.

But there is one more piece of evidence that Eastern Polynesia was the ancestral home of the Maori that is far more compelling, and much simpler.

As James Cook crossed the Pacific on his first voyage, he stopped in the ‘Society Islands’. He named them the ‘Society islands’ as they were a cluster of islands located close by each other… ‘close’ is a relative notion… many of these islands are over 100 km’s from their nearest neighbour.

Cook, as he traveled through these Islands, was seeking to recruit some assistance. He intended to take advantage of what local knowledge was available to him, and was looking for a local guide. While he was in ‘Otaheiti’ (we call this Tahiti) he found a suitable candidate. This is an extract of his journal entry for 13th July, 1769.

“For some time before we left this Island several of the Natives were daily offering themselves to go away with us; and as it was thought they must be of use to us in our future discoveries we resolved to bring away one whose name is Tupia, a Chief and a Priest. This man had been with us most part of the time we had been upon the Island, which gave us an opportunity to know something of him. We found him to be a very intelligent person, and to know more of the Geography of the Islands situated in these Seas, their produce, and the religion, laws, and Customs of the inhabitants, than any one we had met with, and was the likeliest person to answer our Purpose. For these reasons, and at the request of Mr. Banks, I received him on board, together with a young Boy, his Servant. “

No painting or drawing exists of ‘Tupaia’ (as we would spell it these days), so here’s one of James Cook instead. Beside it is a chart of Otaheite and the neighbouring islands, where Tupaia came from.

cook portrait

Portrait of James Cook at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Society Islands

A Chart of the Islands of Otaheiti

Cook was a meticulous observer and diarist. His journals record the people, practices and society he observed in the Pacific on his three voyages. His journals are the first and most detailed description we have of the people of the Pacific, and in this blog they are quoted extensively. Cook’s observations of the Polynesians and Maori give us marvelous insights into the way these people were living prior to European influence. He journeyed across the Pacific 127 years after Abel Tasman, but his observations are assumed to be very similar to those that Tasman experienced.

Tupaia accompanied Cook when he arrived in New Zealand. The first encounter did not go well. When Cook went ashore he saw some natives “of whom I was desirous of speaking with”, and set off to meet them. While he was doing this, another party of Maori approached the men left guarding his rowboat. These men, fearing for their safety, shot and killed one of the Maori. Cook returned immediately, and they rowed back to their ship before things got worse.

He tried to speak to the natives again the next morning. This time he met with success; thanks to Tupaia.

“In the morning, seeing a number of the Natives at the same place where we saw them last night, I went on shore with the Boats, mann’d and arm’d, and landed on the opposite side of the river. Mr. Banks, Dr. Solander, and myself only landed at first, and went to the side of the river, the natives being got together on the opposite side. We called to them in the George’s Island Language, but they answer’d us by flourishing their weapons over their heads and dancing, as we suppos’d, the War Dance; upon this we retir’d until the Marines were landed, which I order’d to be drawn up about 200 yards behind us. We went again to the river side, having Tupia, Mr. Green, and Dr. Monkhouse along with us. Tupia spoke to them in his own Language, and it was an agreeable surprize to us to find that they perfectly understood him.”

Tupaia and the Maori spoke the same language. Tupaia was from Tahiti. Tahiti is 2,500 km from the Island groups of Samoa, Fiji and Tonga. Samoan, Fijian and Tongan, whilst having some similarity to Tahitian, are quite different languages, yet Tupaia was ‘perfectly understood’.

No clearer or simpler evidence exists that demonstrates that the Maori are descended from people in Eastern Polynesia.

Posted in Kurahaupo, Mataatua, Matawhaorua, Tainui, The Wakas

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