Pre-Māori settlement of New Zealand theories

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The mainstream view of the Polynesian settlement of New Zealand and the Chatham Islands as representing the end-point of a long chain of island-hopping voyages in the South Pacific.

Since the early 1900s the theory that Polynesians (who became the Māori) were the first ethnic group to settle in New Zealand (first proposed by Captain James Cook) has been dominant among archaeologists and anthropologists.[1][2] Before that time and until the 1920s, however, a small group of prominent anthropologists proposed that the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands represented a pre-Māori group of people from Melanesia, who once lived across all of New Zealand and were replaced by the Māori.[3] While this idea lost favour among academics, it was widely and controversially incorporated into school textbooks during the 20th century. Today, such theories are considered to be racist, having been used to justify settler colonalism.[4][better source needed]

In more recent times, outside of academia a greater variety of speculation of New Zealand's first settlers has occurred. These ideas typically incorporate aspects of conspiracy theories as they are in opposition to the last 100 years of academic research.[5][6][7] The common acceptance of these unsubstantiated theories has been used by prominent politicians and public figures to attack Māori politics and culture.[3][8]

Māori oral traditions[edit]

Statue of the legendary explorer Kupe

Māori traditions speak of all manner of spirits, fairy folk, giants, and ogres living in parts of New Zealand when Māori arrived. The pale-skinned patupaiarehe are perhaps the most well-known, which Ngāti Kura, Ngāti Korakorako, and Ngāti Tūrehu are said to be sub-groupings of.[9][10] In oral tradition, patupaiarehe taught weaving and net-making to the Māori, and could not come out during the day.[11][12] Ponaturi were similar in that they could not tolerate sunlight, so they lived in the ocean.[10]

In south Westland, Kāti Māhaki ki Makaawhio's Te Tauraka Waka a Maui Marae[13] is named in honour of a tradition stating that Māui landed his canoe in Bruce Bay when he arrived in New Zealand.[14] In a myth collected from Lake Ellesmere / Te Waihora, Māui threw a giant to the sea and buried him underneath a mountain to create the area around Banks Peninsula.[15]

Kupe and Ngahue were both contemporaries famous for exploring New Zealand before notable migration voyages began.[16] The latter discovered pounamu,[17] the former introduced the first dogs (kurī) and created Lake Grassmere/Kapara Te Hau to drown Te Kāhui Tipua - who were described as 'giants' or 'ogres' living in Marlborough at the time.[18] Both Kupe and Ngahue returned to Hawaiki,[19] though Ngahue came back with the Arawa after a war with Uenuku.[20]

Other Māori traditions exclude the existence of other humans in New Zealand upon their arrival. A well-known story is how Māui fished up the North Island out of the Pacific Ocean, which Te Rangi Hīroa of Ngāti Mutunga suggests might be a way to say he 'discovered' the island out of the blue, though the rest of the myth is very fanciful in saying parts of his canoe became different areas of both islands.[21]

In the traditions of Ngāi Tahu's Waitaha descendants, Rākaihautū of the Uruaokapuarangi was the first man to set foot in the South Island by digging up the many lakes and waterways and filling them with fish. He brought with him the ancestors of the groups Te Kāhui Tipua, Te Kāhui Roko, and Te Kāhui Waitaha.[22][23] According to Sir Āpirana Ngata of Ngāti Porou, Rākaihautū did not go south at all, but rather his legend was brought down there.[24] Some accounts may say he is an ancestor of Toi through a daughter that stayed behind in Te Patunuioāio, who himself is an ancestor of Kāti Māmoe, Te Kāhea, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Rāhiri Tumutumu, and Hāwea in some tellings.[25] Hāwea might have alternatively been a different tribe that arrived on the Kapakitua before or at a similar time to Waitaha before merging with them, with other ancient tribal groupings possibly including the Maero and Rapuwai.[26][27]

In Ngāi Tūhoe traditions, Toi's 'ancestor' Tīwakawaka was the first to settle the country aboard Te Aratauwhāiti, "but only his name is remembered".[19] A man named Kahukura took Toi's own canoe, the Horouta, and returned to Hawaiki. He sent kūmara back to the new lands with the canoe.[28]

Early European speculation[edit]

Elsdon Best with fellow ethnographer Percy Smith. The two most prominent academic proponents of pre-Māori settlement.[29]

During the 19th century, ideas about Aryan migrations became popular and these were applied to New Zealand. Edward Tregear's The Aryan Maori (1885) suggested that Aryans from India migrated to southeast Asia and thence to the islands of the Pacific, including New Zealand.[30] These ideas were often linked with the hypothesis that Melanesians were the first to occupy the islands of the Pacific Ocean and were later replaced by the Polynesian peoples.[31]

The writing of Percy Smith and Elsdon Best from the late 19th century also theorised about pre-Māori settlement. Their work inspired theories that the Māori had displaced a more primitive pre-Māori population of Moriori, in mainland New Zealand – and that the Chatham Island Moriori were the last remnant of this earlier race.[3] Julius von Haast echoed this idea, suggesting an early nomadic people, who subsisted mainly on moa hunting and beachcombing, were superseded by the Māori who introduced agriculture and lived in small villages.[32]

Starting in the 1920s, H. D. Skinner and others overturned this hypothesis by showing the continuation and adaptation of the 'Archaic' Māori culture into the 'Classic' Māori culture. This negated the need for pre-Māori settlement in models of prehistoric New Zealand. Since this time archeology has become a more professional and scientifically rigorous practice and the model of Polynesians arriving in an uninhabited New Zealand and adapting to its environment has not fundamentally changed.[33]

Recent revivals of pre-Māori settlement theories[edit]

Although modern New Zealand archaeology has largely clarified questions of the origin and dates of the earliest migrations, some theorists have continued to speculate that what is now New Zealand was discovered by Melanesians, 'Celts', Greeks, Egyptians or the Chinese, before the arrival of the Polynesian ancestors of the Māori.[34][35] Some of these ideas have also been supported by politicians and media personalities.[36][37] For example, Don Brash, formerly leader of the New Zealand National Party, is a high-profile proponent of pre-Māori settlement theories.[5][38]

An earlier presentation of the theory of pre-Polynesian European settlement of New Zealand was Kerry Bolton's 1987 pamphlet Lords of the Soil,[39] which states that "Polynesia has been occupied by peoples of the Europoid race since ancient times".[40]

Other books presenting such theories have included The Great Divide: The Story of New Zealand & its Treaty, (2012) by Ian Wishart, a journalist, and To the Ends of the Earth by Maxwell C. Hill, Gary Cook and Noel Hilliam, which claims that New Zealand was discovered by explorers from ancient Egypt and Greece.[41]

Historians and archaeologists dismiss the theories. Michael King wrote in his history of New Zealand, "Despite a plethora of amateur theories about Melanesian, South American, Egyptian, Phoenician and Celtic colonisation of New Zealand, there is not a shred of evidence that the first human settlers were anything other than Polynesian",[42] and Richard Hill, professor of New Zealand Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, said in 2012, "Not one of [the theories] has ever passed any remote academic scrutiny."[43] Hugh Laracy of the University of Auckland called them "wild speculation" that has been "thoroughly disposed of by academic specialists".[44]

Another historian, Vincent O'Malley, and the New Zealand Archaeological Association regard the theories as having a racist or at least a political element, seeking to cast doubt on Waitangi Tribunal claims.[43][45] Scott Hamilton in "No to Nazi Pseudo-history: an Open Letter" further explains objections to the theories of Bolton and Martin Doutré (and the website Ancient Celtic New Zealand).[46]

Ian Wishart, commenting that New Zealand cave art depicting snakes and crocodiles was suggestive of Melanesian cultural memory in early Maori art, nonetheless also criticised those seeking to use pre-Maori settlement to negate treaty obligations: "This is a really important point. It's fascinating academically, but it doesn't matter that modern Maori probably were not the first inhabitants (and in many of their Waitangi claims they actually admit the land was populated by someone else before them). Under international law, finders keepers and the rules of conquest, the first New Zealanders have long since been wiped out or intermarried or become slaves to the later Maori arrivals. Their lands became Maori lands. The Brits were not doing deals with the Patupaiarehe or the Waitaha or the Moriori, they were doing deals with the people who now controlled the land, the Maori."[47]


A natural outcrop of ignimbrite (Kaimanawa Wall), with regular joint sets which are interpreted by some to be manmade.

A site frequently related by theorists as evidence of pre-Polynesian settlers is the Kaimanawa Wall, which some claim is a remnant of ancient human construction that the Māori could not have built because they did not build with stone in such a way.[48][49] Several anthropologists and geologists have concluded the formation to be a natural ignimbrite outcrop formed 330,000 years ago.[48][49]

The wall formation was inspected by an anthropologist and a geologist; neither saw evidence of a human origin. In a preliminary investigation, anthropologist Neville Ritchie of the New Zealand Department of Conservation, observed "matching micro-irregularities along the joints." This indicated that the blocks in the wall were too perfectly matched. He also observed the joints were neither straight nor truly horizontal nor perpendicular, indicating the joint alignments were too poorly constructed.

Ritchie concluded the blocks are a natural formation based on the presence of matching micro-irregularities in blocks and imperfect joint alignment.[48]

Peter Wood, of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences at Wairakei, inspected the blocks for an afternoon and concluded they are natural fractures in what Wood termed "Jointed-Rangitaiki-Ignimbrite," and described as "330,000 year old volcanic rock that is common in the Taupō Volcanic Zone."[48] Both vertical and horizontal joints are common. Fractures in the Rangitaiki ignimbrite formed when it cooled and contracted after flowing into place during an eruption.[48]

Boulders originally on a hill in Silverdale, Auckland have been argued by Martin Doutré in a self-published 1999 book to be artefacts left by a pre-Polynesian Celtic population, who according to the theory came to be known as the patupaiarehe, and used the boulders as part of a system spanning around the area, used for calendar tracking and survey functions.[50] History professor K. R. Howe described Doutre as "a self-styled archaeo-astronomer’ who argues that certain configurations of stones in the New Zealand landscape are remnants of mathematically advanced astronomical devices built by ancient Celts who had links with the builders of Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid."[51] Bruce Hayward, a Geological Society spokesman, says the boulders were formed in the ocean 70 million years ago and naturally pushed into the hills over time.[52]

Other supposed structures and creations of pre-Polynesian settlers are described as the Waipoua 'stone city',[53] the 'Waitapu Valley (Maunganui Bluff) solar observatory' including Puketapu hill and a mountain at Hokianga, a 'stone village' in the Tapapakanga Regional Park, and all manner of petroglyphs and carvings found throughout the islands. Most of these ideas are propounded by Doutré.[53]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See 1904 paper by A. Shand on The Early History of the Morioris
  2. ^ Shapiro, HL (1940). "The physical anthropology of the Maori-Moriori". The Journal of the Polynesian Society. XLIX (1(193)): 1–15. JSTOR 20702788.
  3. ^ a b c "Imagining Moriori: A history of ideas of a people in the twentieth century", Jacinta Blank, MA Thesis, 2007
  4. ^ Doyle, Jacob (17 June 2020). "The Moriori myth has enabled racism against Māori in Aotearoa for generations". Stuff. Retrieved 8 March 2023.
  5. ^ a b "Don Brash - Ragging on Te Reo". Radio New Zealand. 2 December 2017. Retrieved 15 December 2018. Time=30:20
  6. ^ "Moriori myth corrected". Stuff. 19 March 2011. Retrieved 16 December 2018.
  7. ^ "TVNZ doco claiming Celts were here before Māori has been removed from OnDemand service". Stuff. 20 August 2018. Retrieved 16 December 2018.
  8. ^ Hamilton, Scott (22 May 2017). "The white tangata whenua, and other bullshit from the 'One New Zealand' crew". The Spinoff. Retrieved 3 November 2021.
  9. ^ Royal, Te Ahukaramū Charles (2005). "First peoples in Maori tradition: Patupaiarehe, Turehu and other inhabitants". Te Ara Enyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  10. ^ a b Wikaira, Martin (2007). "Patupaiarehe and ponaturi". Te Ara Enyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  11. ^ Hindmarsh, Gerard. "Flax - the enduring fibre". New Zealand Geographic. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  12. ^ Tregear, Edward (1891). The Maori-Polynesian comparative dictionary. Wellington: Lyon and Blair. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  13. ^ "Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio contact page". Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  14. ^ "Bruce Bay". Westland District Council. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  15. ^ "Horomaka or Te Pataka o Rakaihautū — Banks Peninsula". Christchurch City Libraries. Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  16. ^ Taonui, Rāwiri (2005). "Canoe traditions: Greenstone adze". Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  17. ^ Best, Elsdon (1934). "Voyage of Kupe and Ngahue from Eastern Polynesia to New Zealand". The Maori As He Was: A Brief Account of Maori Life as it was in Pre-European Days. Wellington: N.Z.Dominion Museum. p. 22.
  18. ^ Mitchell, Hilary; Mitchell, John (2005). "Te Tau Ihu tribes: Early Traditions". Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  19. ^ a b Biggs, Bruce Grandison (1966). "Tradition". In McLintock, A. H. (ed.). Maori Myths and Traditions. Wellington: Government Printer. p. 450. Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  20. ^ Tapsell, Paul (2005). "Te Arawa: Origins". Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  21. ^ Hīroa, Te Rangi (1976) [1949]. The Coming of the Maori (Second ed.). Wellington: Whitcombe and Tombs. p. 5. ISBN 0723304084.
  22. ^ "Kōrero Tuku Iho - Our History". Te Taumutu Rūnanga. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  23. ^ "Rākaihautū". University of Canterbury. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  24. ^ Ngata, A. T. (1950). Grace, John Te Herekiekie (ed.). "The Io Cult - early migration - puzzle of the canoes)". The Journal of the Polynesian Society. LIX: 338. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  25. ^ Graham, George (1922). "Te heke-o-nga-toko-toru. (The migration of the three.)". The Journal of the Polynesian Society. XXXI. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  26. ^ Stephenson, Janet; Bauchop, Heather; Petchey, Peter (2004). "Bannockburn Heritage Landscape Study" (PDF). Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  27. ^ "Ancient Iwi". Ngāi Tahu. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  28. ^ Rāwiri, Taonui (2005). "Canoe traditions: Canoes of the East Coast". Te Ara Enyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  29. ^ Photograph by kind permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, reference number: 1/2-028237-F
  30. ^ K. R. Howe. p 2 'Ideas of Māori origins', Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9 Nov 12
  31. ^ Howe 2003, p. 34.
  32. ^ Page 4. 1880s–1970s: Moriori origins; the Great Fleet', Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9 Nov 12
  33. ^ Howe 2003, pp. 166–178.
  34. ^ Noted. "Did the Spanish or Chinese visit New Zealand before Polynesians? - The Listener". Noted. Retrieved 2 February 2019.
  35. ^ "1 The Waitaha People – a Chinese colony that settled in New Zealand 2000 years ago. | The Lost Empire of Atlantis | 1421 | 1434 | Chinese Exploration | Gavin Menzies". Retrieved 2 February 2019.
  36. ^ "History in the Making | NZCPR Site". Retrieved 2 February 2019.
  37. ^ Keir, Bill (31 January 2007). "Agenda-driven history". NZ Skeptics. Retrieved 2 February 2019.
  38. ^ Mulligan, Jesse (9 August 2018). "Debunking the myth about the Moriori". RNZ. Retrieved 13 March 2022.
  39. ^ Kerry R. Bolton (1987). Lords of the Soil. Petone: Realist Publications. OCLC 154233606.
  40. ^ Barrie Sargeant (2 December 2004). "Kerry Bolton — a nut, or just a misunderstood Mormon/Satanist/Nazi?". Fightdemback. Archived from the original on 14 April 2013. Retrieved 13 February 2013.
  41. ^ The Great Divide: The Story of New Zealand and its Treaty. Auckland: Howling at the Moon. 2012. ISBN 9780987657367. Maxwell C. Hill (2012). To the Ends of the Earth. Taupiri: Ancient History Publications. ISBN 9780473206871. "Book claims European explorers were here first". 3 News. 23 March 2012.
  42. ^ Michael King (1994). The Penguin History of New Zealand. Penguin Books. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-14-301867-4.
  43. ^ a b Rebecca Quilliam (27 December 2012). "Historians rubbish claims of academic conspiracy". The New Zealand Herald.
  44. ^ "Stoush over pre-Maori colonisers theory"., Fairfax NZ News. 28 December 2012.
  45. ^ "Alternative Archaeology". New Zealand Archaeological Association. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  46. ^ Scott Hamilton (18 November 2008). "No to Nazi Pseudo-history: an Open Letter". Scoop Review of Books.
  47. ^ The Great Divide: The Story of New Zealand and its Treaty. Auckland: Howling at the Moon. 2012. p. 36. ISBN 9780987657367.
  48. ^ a b c d e Ritchie, Neville (1996). "A New Age Myth: the Kaimanawa Wall". NZ Skeptics. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  49. ^ a b Howe, K. R. (2005). "Ideas about Māori origins: The Kaimanawa Wall". Te Ara Enyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  50. ^ Martin Doutré (1999). Ancient Celtic New Zealand. Auckland: Dé Danann Publishers. ISBN 9780473053673. Wayne Thompson (6 May 2009). "Call to save hilltop boulders". The New Zealand Herald.
  51. ^ Howe 2003, p. 148.
  52. ^ Wayne Thompson (6 May 2009). "Call to save hilltop boulders". The New Zealand Herald.
  53. ^ a b Hamilton, Scott (22 May 2017). "The white tangata whenua, and other bullshit from the 'One New Zealand' crew". TheSpinoff. Retrieved 30 June 2020.


  • Howe, K (6 October 2003). The Quest for Origins - Who First Discovered and Settled New Zealand and the Pacific Islands?. Penguin Books Press. ISBN 9780143008453.