PACIFIC anthropology has come a long way in the last fifty years, as theories of the origins of island peoples have gone through many revisions.  Did Polynesians migrate from Asia or from South America?  Where did Australian Aborigines come from?  Can Chamorros trace their lineage back to Taiwan, and if so, when were the Marianas settled?

One of the greatest unanswered questions concerning the settlement of the Pacific has to do with the Māori of New Zealand.  It is widely accepted that New Zealand was settled relatively recently compared to the rest of the Pacific, which makes sense given the islands’ remote location.  But from where, and when, did the Māori come?  Let’s look at the development of Māori anthropology for the current understanding.

The great explorer James Cook, first European to interact with the Māori, immediately picked up on similarities between their language and culture and that of the Polynesians he met in Tahiti.  He theorized that they we cousins and that the first Māori were, in fact, Polynesians that had migrated south fairly recently, perhaps a few centuries earlier.  Given that Cook was no anthropologist but a sea captain and explorer, it is remarkable how close to the mark he was. 

After Cook’s theory, others came along to dispute it, some of them useful and some laughable.  Scientists of the 1800s surmised that the first Māori came from India or Egypt, or perhaps they were the lost tribes of Israel, as Mormons believed.

Around the turn of the last century, interest rose in determining whether the Māori were the first people to inhabit New Zealand.  Was there an older, established civilization already there, which the Māori conquered?  The answer might not seem important, but a hundred years ago it carried great significance.  If the Māori were themselves conquerors, then they had no ancestral claim to the land and could therefore be conquered themselves, and European colonization of New Zealand could be justified.  They could not be thought of in the same context as, say, the Aborigines of Australia who were certainly the original inhabitants of that land.  As invaders, the Māori took that which did not belong to them and could not complain if it was subsequently taken from them.  In the moral posturing of the modern world, they would be categorized as one of the takers rather than one of the victims.  Alas, no evidence has surfaced that a previous group of people inhabited New Zealand.  According to science and tradition, the Māori established themselves on virgin land.

We come to the biggest question about Māori emigration, known as the Great Fleet Theory.  Around a hundred years ago, two archaeologists, Percy Smith and Te Whatahoro Jury, compared various Māori origin stories and assembled a story of a great fleet of seven large canoes that traveled across the ocean from the ancestral homeland around Tahiti.  Having enough people to start a colony, they started villages and flourished into a great agricultural civilization until the appearance of European colonizers.  But by the 1960s, others punched holes in the fleet’s canoes.  Some argued that Smith’s methodology of combining stories to create one myth is not good science.  Others used carbon dating to question the timeline of the Great Fleet.  Until now, there simply is no physical evidence to support the Great Fleet theory, although some still argue in favor of it.  

Between modern DNA testing and advances in linguistics, anthropologists of Pacific settlement have a much clearer picture of Māori origins and settlement.  The first Māori almost certainly came from Polynesia, likely Tahiti, and they came to an empty New Zealand in fits and starts, one or two canoes at a time rather than a mass exodus.  They grew and prospered for several hundred years until the Europeans arrived in the late 1700s, at which time they became yet another indigenous people to fall prey to the ambitious and technologically superior whites.  It seems that James Cook got it right after all.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

comments powered by Disqus