Maori were the first inhabitants of New Zealand or Aotearoa, meaning ‘Land of the Long White Cloud'.
According to Maori, the first explorer to reach New Zealand was Kupe. Using the stars and ocean currents as his navigational guides, he ventured across the Pacific on his waka hourua (voyaging canoe) from his ancestral Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki. It is thought that Kupe made landfall at the Hokianga Harbour in Northland, around 1000 years ago.
You will not find Hawaiki on a map, but it is believed Maori came from an island or group of islands in Polynesia in the South Pacific Ocean. There are distinct similarities between the Maori language and culture and others of Polynesia including the Cook Islands, Hawaii, and Tahiti.
More waka hourua followed Kupe over the next few hundred years, landing at various parts of New Zealand. It is believed that Polynesian migration was planned and deliberate, with many waka hourua making return journeys to Hawaiki. Today, iwi (tribes) can trace their entire origins and whakapapa (genealogy) back to certain waka hourua. The seven waka that arrived to Aotearoa were called Tainui, Te Arawa, Matatua, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru, Aotea and Takitimu.
Maori were expert hunters and fishermen. They wove fishing nets from harakeke (flax), and carved fishhooks from bone and stone. They hunted native birds, including moa, the world’s largest bird, with a range of ingenious traps and snares. Maori cultivated land and grew introduced vegetables from Polynesia, including the kumara (sweet potato). They also ate native vegetables, roots and berries. Weaved flax baskets were used to carry food, which was often stored in a pataka — a storehouse raised on stilts.
In pre-European times, Maori tribal warfare was common. Maori warriors were strong and fearless, able to skillfully yield a variety of traditional weapons, including the spear-like taiaha and club-like mere. Today, these weapons may be seen in Maori ceremonies, such as the wero (challenge).
To protect themselves from being attacked by other iwi, Maori would construct pa (fortified village). Built in strategic locations, pa were cleverly constructed with a series of stockades and trenches protecting the inhabitants from intruders. Today, many historic pa sites can be found throughout the country.
While Maori lived throughout the North and South Islands, the Moriori, another Polynesian tribe, lived on the Chatham Islands, nearly 900 kilometres east of Christchurch. Moriori are believed to have migrated to the Chathams from the South Island of New Zealand. In the late 18th century, there were about 2000 Moriori living on the Chathams. However, disease and attacks from Maori saw the numbers of this peace-loving tribe become severely depleted. The last full-blooded Moriori is believed to have died in 1933.