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Who really discovered New Zealand?

Why is the Māori discovery of New Zealand so often overlooked?

If asked the question “Who discovered New Zealand?” many of us would answer, without really thinking, “Captain James Cook” and after centuries of a European-dominated view of history, it’s no wonder it has taken so long to shake this perspective.

From that perspective, New Zealand was first spotted on December 13, 1642 by Dutch navigator Abel Tasman and explored by Captain James Cook in 1769. However, this limited view does not reveal the whole story and credit for the initial discovery and exploration of New Zealand must go to the Māori, a group of Polynesian people who first settled some time between 1250 and 1300.

A Māori man performing a pōwhiri, welcome ceremony. © Mike Powell/Getty
A Māori man performing a pōwhiri, welcome ceremony. © Mike Powell/Getty

New Zealand lies at the bottom of Oceania, a region made up of thousands of islands scattered across the massive expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and these islands were explored and settled centuries before Europeans arrived by various Pacific peoples.

Pacific Islanders’ history of voyage, discovery and culture is celebrated in a new show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Oceania.

One of the many important artifacts on display is also one of New Zealand's oldest. Tangonge, a wooden carving of a tiki (an ancestor or god image), was discovered near the town of Kaitaia in 1920. Thought to date from the 14th century, the style is different to typical Māori art of the period, but is similar to early central Polynesian works, such as Tahitian sculpture.

The Kaitaia carving, c.300 - 1400. Wood, 39 x 226 cm. Auckland War Memorial Museum, 6341
The Kaitaia carving, c.300 - 1400. Wood, 39 x 226 cm. Auckland War Memorial Museum, 6341

When Europeans first landed in New Zealand, several Māori were killed in skirmishes with Cook and his crew. The effects of this first encounter are felt to this day. In Gisborne, a statue of Cook has been repeatedly defaced with graffiti and is to be replaced with art that reflects Māori culture and stories.

Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17 (detail) © Image courtesy of the artist and ARTPROJECTS
Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17 (detail) © Image courtesy of the artist and ARTPROJECTS

The history of Cook’s exploration of the Pacific is powerfully told over 32 minutes in a 26m panoramic video by Māori artist Lisa Reihana called in Pursuit of Venus. The piece, currently on display at the Royal Academy of Arts, scrolls slowly from right to left showing various encounters between Europeans and Pacific people during the pre-colonial era.

Kupe

According to Māori myth, New Zealand (Aotearoa in the Māori language) was discovered by Kupe, a fisherman and Rangatira (chief) from Hawaiki. Kupe’s fishing grounds were being troubled by an octopus, who kept eating all the bait off of the fisherman’s lines. Deducing that the octopus belonged to another chief, Muturangi, Kupe asked Muturangi to stop his pet from eating their bait. When Muturangi refused, Kupe vowed to kill the beast. He left his homeland and pursed the beast across the Pacific Ocean. During the pursuit he discovered New Zealand, where they landed to re-supply. A great sea battle with the Octopus ensued at the mouth of Te Moana o Raukawa (Cook Strait), where Kupe finally killed Muturangi’s pet.

The Cook Strait, where Kupe is said to have killed the Ocotopus. © Evgeny Patrikeev/Getty
The Cook Strait, where Kupe is said to have killed the Ocotopus. © Evgeny Patrikeev/Getty

Kupe travelled around the North Island naming many of the locations he passed and vowed never to return to the land he discovered. When he returned home, Kupe described New Zealand as a place with no people; “I saw no one; what I did see was a kokako, a tiwaiwaka, and a weka (ie birds), whistling away in the gullies; kokako was ko-ing on the ridges, and tiwaiwaka was flitting about before my face.” This narrative firmly places Kupe as the first person to discover New Zealand.

As the myth comes from an oral tradition, there are variations on this story between the different Māori Iwi (tribes). For instance, when Kupe first comes across New Zealand, in the Ngāti Kurī telling, he mistakes Houhora mountain for a whale, whereas the Ngāti Kahu state the fishing tide resulted in Kupe landing in the Hokianga Harbour. The variation could be due to the tribes wishing to link themselves to Kupe.

When was New Zealand discovered?

The year Kupe arrived in New Zealand is still debated, as is the year the ‘Great Fleet’ of Māori settlers arrived. Stephenson Percy Smith, a 20th century anthropologist, translated a telling of the story recorded by Hoani Te Whatahoro. In this, Kupe’s arrival happens in 750AD and the migratory great fleet arriving in 1300AD. However, a 2010 study, headed by Janet M. Wilmshurst of New Zealand's Landcare Research, carbon dated samples and found the evidence of human colonisation to be between around 1230-1280AD. At the time of the study’s publication, Api Mahuika, a Māori tribal leader who passed away in 2015, told Radio New Zealand that he did not think it was the last word of scientific research and he continued to believe in the oral tradition.

By Alfie Shaw
Featured image by Rich Jones Photography/Getty

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