The Māori are the native Polynesian people of New Zealand. The ancestors of the Māori originated from south-east Asia. Some historians trace these early settlers as migrating from today’s China. However, more commonly, the indigenous Māori are believed to have come from Haiwaiki, an island or group of islands in Polynesia in the South Pacific Ocean. Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer, noticed that the kumara, or the sweet potato, originated in central South America. This was the staple cultivated food crop of the Māori. Along with the very distinct similarities between the Māori language and the culture and those of Polynesia, such as the Cook Islands, Hawaii, and Tahiti, scholars were led to believe that the Māori came from Haiwaiki. It is not possible to locate Haiwaiki on a modern-day map, however.
According to tradition, the first explorer to arrive in Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand, was Kupe. This mythical Polynesian navigator used the stars and ocean currents as his directional guides, and ventured across the Pacific on his voyaging canoe or waka hourua. Ethnologists estimate he arrived in Aotearoa around 925 CE. The first mass arrival of Polynesian settlers, known as the Great Fleet, brought the Māori to Aotearoa in several waves. Modern scholars estimate this happened between 1250 and 1300.
After living over several centuries in isolation, the Polynesian settlers established a new culture known as the “Māori,” with their own language, mythology, and arts and crafts. The Māori were expert hunters and fishermen, so their most notable crafts include making stone adzes (cutting tools), weaving fishing nets from flax, and carving fishhooks from stone and bone. Tribal groups were also formed based on Polynesian social customs. Warfare between these tribes was also common. Māori warriors were fierce and fearless – they built numerous weapons from stone and bone to be used in hand-to-hand combat. Training occurred from a young age to prepare children for future conflict, which was usually over territory.
It is when the Europeans arrived in New Zealand from the seventeenth century that enormous change was brought to the Māori way of life; they began adopting aspects of Western society and implementing them into their own lives. At the beginning, relations between the Māori and the Europeans were solid – the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, allowing both cultures to live alongside each other amicably in a British colony. Tensions began to rise over disputed land sales some two decades later, which led to major conflict. It was only by the twentieth century that the Māori began to recover.