Polynesian conquests : New Zealand, Te Aotearoa Part 1

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The Polynesians came from south-east Asia and after thousands years of migration first settled the uninhabited islands of what is now called French Polynesia. Then they reached the most remote apices of the famous Polynesian Triangle : Easter island, Hawai’i and New Zealand. This is the odyssey we aim at telling you in a series of articles, the first of them dealing with New Zealand.

Aotearoa, or Land of the long white cloud, is the Māori name for New Zealand, a country made up of two main islands and situated some 4,000 kilometres southwest of French Polynesia, that is, around 5 hours by plane from Papeete. With a land area of 270,000 square kilometres, New Zealand offers the visitors a wide range of touristic and cultural activities. While in the big cities like Wellington -the capital city- or Auckland -the largest one- tourists can enjoy entertainment shows, concerts, strolls and shopping sessions, the breath-taking landscapes will delight the most demanding nature lovers and fans of outdoor activities. Among the 4.6 millions inhabitants of the country, only 15% are Māori, descendants of the first great Polynesian navigators that reached its shores between the 10th and 13th centuries according to the most widely accepted studies.

There once was a myth…

Many place names commemorate the journey and the adventures of this famous navigator since he arrived aboard his twin-hulled canoe Matawhaorua at Whangaroa in the Bay of Islands. Te Kupenga-ā-Kupe (Kupenga upe’a in Tahitian- is a fishing net) is the name of the cliffs on modern Cape Jackson while Te Taonui-ā-Kupe is the cape itself (Tao, in Māori and Tahitian, is a spear) and Te Whekenui, a bay lying in the beautiful Marlborough Sounds on the South Island.

What do the scholars think?

The great migrations from South East Asia towards the Pacific islands began approximately 6,000 years ago on board big double-hulled sailing canoes loaded with men, fruit and animals. 3,000 years later these Austronesian seafarers settled between the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands, and mixed with the local populations. 2,000 years later the Lapita people –so they are now called- settled Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. As they moved eastwards these ancestors became experts in navigation techniques using the position of the heavenly bodies, the clouds, the winds and the sea currents. They knew their natural environment very well, and their skills -canoe building and seafaring techniques for instance- were taught from an early age and remembered in legends. In the course of the centuries and because of wars or famines, they kept on looking for new territories to the north, the south and the east, finally reaching the apices of what is now known as the Polynesian Triangle. Migrations took place from Tonga and Samoa towards the Marquesas, the Society Islands, and then to Easter Island, Hawai’i and New Zealand.

Today, the dating of the settlement of Eastern Polynesia remains still a topic of debate but prominent scholars think that in Eastern Polynesia the Marquesas were first settled about AD 300. They would have served as the major dispersal centre with later migrations to Easter Island, Hawai’i, the Societies and New Zealand. The Wairau Bar site, located at the mouth of the Wairau river just out of Blenheim in the South Island, is regarded as one of the most important archeological sites in New Zealand and one of the earliest landfall and settlement. The short-lived settlement of Te Pokohiwi o Kupe – « the shoulder of Kupe » in māori -was discovered in 1939 after young Jim Eyles unexpectedly unearthed a few Māori artefacts. Since then, several excavations have taken place at Wairau Bar and a unique collection of Māori artefacts has been found : over two thousand items –hundreds of stone adzes, woodworking tools, moa eggs and bones, fishing hooks, ornate personal ornaments- and koiwi tangata, human remains. Successive diggings have also brought to light traditional Polynesian stone-lined umu – earth ovens- and habitats. Forty-four burials were recovered from the site and the human remains analysed for ancient DNA. Thanks to modern technologies facial reconstructions of three of the ancient inhabitants of the site have even been made possible ; among those tangata whenua –natives-, lived the « oldest Māori woman », « 800-year old Aunty ».

Alternative theories

There is no doubt left about the origins of the Polynesians that arrived in the Pacific about 1,000 BC, but the origins of the people of the Pacific islands are increasingly argued, and some people think that other peoples, non-Polynesian folk, might have settled the islands too, notably in New Zealand where more and more people claim that their ancestors originated from Melanesia, Middle East, Egypt or the Mediterranean. Since the 1990s some Māori iwi have claimed that their ancestors belonged to the Waitaha, a nation who would have arrived to New Zealand before the first Polynesians led by Kupe. This nation would have settled Easter Island and then New Zealand.

According to oral tradition, the Moriori arrived to Rēkohu –native name for Chatham island- on board three outrigger canoes named Rangi Houa, Rangi Mata and Oropuke before the warlike Māoris invaded their lands. Those islands remained quite isolated until the HMS Chatham commanded by W. Broughton as part of the Vancouver expedition dropped anchor in their seas in 1791. The assaults from the Māoris and the diseases brought along by the Europeans led the Moriori on the brink of extinction. The last full-blooded Moriori died in 1933 but the descendants of the Moriori are still fighting today for the recognition of their rights on the lands they have been deprived of for more than 150 years. No wonder these theories become popular and resurface regularly in the Pacific islands when local culture experience some revival and when the scholars are getting more and more interested in oral tradition. For many, their myths provide answers to the questions about the settlement of New Zealand and indeed, there can be found legends about native people who arrived there prior to the Polynesians. For instance some evoke the Patupaiarehe, those fair-skinned and fair-haired or reddish-haired beings who could be either very tall or very small.

According to oral tradition, Kupe was the first explorer to reach New Zealand’s shores, between 600 and 900 AD. Many Māori tribes still tell the exploits of this seafaring fisherman, who left his ancestral Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki chasing a giant octopus named Wheke-a-Muturangi. Others tell how Kupe fell in love with Hoturapa, his cousin’s wife, and fled his homeland to avoid vengeance. When he arrived to Aotearoa he supposedly fought a giant octopus (Wheke in māori –fe’e in Tahitian- is an octopus) which he cooked in a giant earth oven called umu wheke.

Tradition has it that when Kupe discovered New Zealand, a cloud was stretching over the islands. His wife Hine-i-te-aparangi would have exclaimed: “He ao, he ao tea, he ao tea roa!” “A cloud, a long cloud, a long white cloud!” Hence the name of the land… After exploring Aotearoa, Kupe sailed back to his native land; Te Hokianga-nui-ā-Kupe, an estuary lying northwest of modern-day Auckland, is a reminder of his departure (Hoki in Māori –ho’i in Tahitian- means to go back). Back home, he would have left directions to sail to the newly found land and many waka whaorua did so -a waka whaorua is an outrigger canoe, called va’a taurua in Tahitian. Among them were seven canoes from which most Māori iwi -tribes- trace descent. They were called Tainui, Te Arawa, Matatua, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru, Aotea and Takitimu.

Controversial dating

Since the 1920s the scholars have attempted to set a chronology of the colonisation of Polynesia, but to no avail. Yet archeologists and linguists agree on a couple of points. First, they think Western Polynesia was settled during the first millennium BC and that several centuries elapsed between the initial settlement of the Lapita in Samoa and Tonga and the settlement of the easternmost islands. Second, they generally agree that the colonisation process was made through successive « waves » and that there were many exchanges between the colonised islands. What’s more the presence in the Polynesian islands of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) and the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) indigenous to the American continent provide evidence of voyages from east to west. Lastly, they also believe that the settlement of Eastern Polynesia started about 500 BC and was completed between the 8th and 13th centuries.

Further DNA-based studies of remains and artefacts unearthed from Te Pokohiwi o Kupe revealed that the occupation of the Bar started around 1300AD and that some of those first settlers suffered from arthritis and gout, giving scientists new clues on the disease susceptibility in Polynesian populations. DNA extraction along with radiocarbon dating also allowed to locate Hawaiki the legendary homeland of the Polynesian people in a region somewhere in Central East Polynesia where the Cook and Society islands are situated. Te Rūnanga a Rangitāne o Wairau are the kaitiaki –guardians- of the site; their mission is to preserve the cultural heritage of the Rangitāne, a iwi who settled in this region around the 1600s. They have long struggled for the koiwi tangata to be taken from the Museums back to where they belong; in 2009, Maori earliest human remains were eventually reburied at Te Pokohiwi o Kupe. They’re still working hand in hand with the scientists for the researches to be conducted in the best conditions and in the respect of the kupuna –ancestors- who rest there.

On board their canoes, there would have been three different races: white-skinned people with reddish or blond hair who were skilled at reading the geometry of the stars, others who were tall and dark-skinned and very good gardeners, and finally people who were olive-skinned with double-folded eyelids and good knowledge of greenstone. This theory is based on a book “being the teachings of six Waitaha elders as told to the author”. It is much debated because it was issued when some iwi were claiming rights to the land and because those in favour of this movement put forward hypothesis once used about the Morioris by ethnologists E. Best and P.Smith in the 1920s. The Moriori people inhabited the Chatham Islands lying 800 kilometres off the east coast of the South Island. They supposedly settled those islands before the seafarers coming from the Marquesas and the Society Islands. They were said to come from present-day Melanesia.

Similar mythical beings can be found in the legends of other Polynesian islands; for instance in the Tuāmotus they are called Mokorea while they bear the name Orovaru in the Australs. They are said to have long and fair or red hair, and long claw-like nails. In modern French Polynesia too, some claim they are the descendants of those legendary people but it seems that in New Zealand more and more people are getting interested in those alternative ideas. Unfortunately for those expecting definite answers, dating methods are not 100% liable yet and the samplings are still too few to enable the scholars to date the various migrations with accuracy. Yet archeological excavations and biological and linguistic research are still being carried out and their outcome might well challenge the orthodox versions someday.

Polynesian conquests : New Zealand, Te Aotearoa Part 1
The Polynesians came from south-east Asia and after thousands years of migration first settled the uninhabited islands of what is now called French Polynesia.
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