If you’re like most people in the west, then you’ll probably consider New Zealand among the most appealing destinations, should you decide to relocate. The country is home to an incredibly diverse landscape, among which you’ll find a myriad of weird and wonderful plants and animals. The weather is fairly agreeable, too, and the language barrier is virtually non-existent. The country is welcoming of would-be migrants, and regularly tops surveys of expats which measure quality of life.
The country wasn’t empty of human life when European explorers first made landfall here, however – the native population, known as the Maori peoples, settled here from nearby islands in the pacific at some point around the late 13th century. Let’s take a closer look at how such a voyage was possible, and how Maori culture developed in subsequent years.
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What’s in a name?
The word ‘Maori’, in the Maori language, is similar to the word for ‘ordinary’. It’s used to differentiate the Maori people from the deities and spirits they use to explain the word around them. When early European visitors to the island first encountered them, they described them as ‘natives’ – it was only the Maori themselves who offered an alternative name. They also refer to themselves as ‘people of the land’ (or ‘tangata whenua’ in the Maori tongue). Hundreds of years later, the government of New Zealand decided to settle the issue with a legal act. The Maori Purposes Act of 1947 demanded that the term ‘maori’ be preferred in all state communications. In 1974 the law was changed further to allow anyone to self-identify as Maori.
Where did the Maori come from?
The Maori are thought to have arrived via canoe from neighbouring Polynesian islands. This theory is backed up by studies of mitochondrial DNA, and the similarities between the languages of modern-day tribespeople in Polynesia and New Zealand.
The new arrivals arrived to find a heavily-forested island, teeming with bird life. Among the local animals were enormous species of moa, the largest of which weighed as much as a small horse, and stood twice as tall as a person. Alongside this was an enormous eagle with a nine-foot wingspan, which was swiftly hunted to extinction by the island’s new human arrivals.
The Classic Period
Over the hundreds of years that followed the first landfall by Maori settlers, there were severe geographical changes to the island. A fault in the South Island caused a series of earthquakes and tsunamis which destroyed many coastal settlements. More significant was the impact on the wildlife, as the changing conditions led to the extinction of the moa and several other food sources for the Maori.
This period is also notable for the development of an offshoot culture, the ‘Moriori’. This tangent occurred when a group of Maoris migrated eastward, to the Chatham Islands. The settlers here had few rival tribes to contend with, and so developed a markedly pacifistic culture. This culture was to receive a rude awakening centuries later, however, when a group of Maori invaded the island and killed and enslaved most of its two-thousand-strong population.
The Maori on the mainland, meanwhile, had developed a new and more sophisticated weaponry and boats, and practiced cannibalism. This latter fact was discovered by European explorers of the islands in the 18th century. There were several massacres, including the Boyd massacre of 1809; this notorious incident saw Maori tribespeople capture and eat sixty-six members of the crew of the whaling vessel Boyd. The massacre occurred in Whangaroa Harbour, on the country’s Northern Island, and remains among the bloodiest episodes of cannibalism on record. You can still visit the site today!
Of course, when Europeans began to settle New Zealand en masse, the results for the locals were unpleasant. The new arrivals interfered with the development of the native cultures considerably – even in areas where they didn’t intend to. Tribes living near to European settlers were able to access muskets, which hugely altered the balance of power on the island. Moreover, those who came directly in contact with Europeans would encounter new infectious diseases like influenza and smallpox, to which the host Europeans were largely immune. It’s difficult to say with certainty how many of the Maori perished due to exposure to infection, but conservative estimates would say that at least 10% of the indigenous population fell victim – and gloomier ones would counter that it was closer to half the population. Certainty in these things is impossible – but it’s beyond doubt that the Maori and their fellow islanders enjoy a far more pleasant relationship nowadays.
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