Early History - In The Beginning


Long after the great island chains of the western Pacific had been settled, the myriad small islands of the eastern ocean remained empty. then, over 3000 years ago, a seafaring people from the west who had already settled in Fiji, migrated against the trade winds, to settle Samoa and Tonga. They were root-crop agriculturists, fishermen, and potters who made fine, decorated pottery now called Lapita after the site in New Caledonia where it was first identified by archaeologists. But above all they were seafarers. Their vessels built from the great timber trees of Fiji, wee capable of carrying perhaps fifty people on long voyages. Their navigators used guiding stars (kaveinga) especially in equatorial latitudes where the fixed stars follow a straight path from east to west each night. Knowing the star that passed perpendicularly oiver one's island provided a homing beacon for the discoverers probing ever further to the east. When provisions ran low without a landfall being made, it was always possible to call off the heat against the prevailing trade winds and run down-wind on a reach. As long as the appropriate star rose to the zenith each night one could be sure of heading for home. By the time of Christ, the people who may now be called the Polynesians had discovered and settled islands as distant as the Marquesas, 10,000 kilometres east of Fiji.

To strike north posed a more difficult navigational problems for the explorers. As one moves into higher latitudes the apparent star paths become parabolic and only when they are rising or setting do stars provide a reliable guide to direction. The Pole Star, which always indicates due north, would help explorers to maintain direction on an outward voyage but a real problem would arise on attempting to return from an unsuccessful probe. Although raising the appropriate star to the zenith would locate the right latitude it would not determine whether the returning voyagers were east or west of home. A strong guess would sent them in exactly the wrong direction. A possible way of overcoming this problem, one which has been used successfully in modern experiments in navigating without instruments, is to sail deliberately too far east (or west) and then, when the appropriate star is directly above, to sail west (or east), 'running down the parallel' of latitude until the landfall is made.

It is generally not known whether this technique was actually used by Polynesian explorers. However, we do know that by 400 A.D. Polynesians from the Marquesas islands had settled the Hawaiian islands 5000 kilometres to the north-west. Whether any of the settlers could or did return to their Marquesan homeland we cannot determine, but there is some evidence for a second settlement of Hawaii from even more distant Tahiti. In the extreme south-west, New Zealand still lay apart and empty as it had done for more than fifty million years since the breakup of the greatest ocean than other lands, and occupied only by birds and coastal mammals, it was now the last habitable land mass of any size to remain unpeopled.

The discovery of Hawaii from the Marquesas was a remarkable achievement, but at twenty degrees north latitude Hawaii is still within the zone of the trade winds that blow steadily and predictably for half of each year. New Zealand lies far to the south of the trade winds, in the stormy waters and unpredictable weather of the Tasman Sea. the southern hemisphere, moreover, has no Pole Star to provide a constant compass point. In spite of these difficulties, on an early summer day rather more than a thousand years ago, a well provisioned catamaran crewed by Polynesians from either the cook Islands or Tahiti broke through te taha atu o te rangi (the far side of the sky) and made its landfall on the north-eastern coastline of the North Island. According to a well-known tradition, the canoe was the Mata-hourua (hourua is the Maori equivalent of Polynesian foulua 'catamaran') and it was captained by Kupe.

The crew had, by good luck or good management, taken advantage of the favourable weather patterns that sometimes occur in the early summer months and, sailing between the atmospheric depressions that move unceasingly from the west across the Tasman, had avoided the danger of being swept too far east into the emptiness of ocean that reaches south to the Antarctic ice-pack, and raised the new land without undue difficulty. As was their wont, the women aboard had guarded carefully a small stock of viable plant material which included coconuts (niu), paper mulberry (aute) cuttings, gourd (fue) seeds and yam (ufi), sweet potato (kuumala -- see * at bottom of this page for further explanation and comments about the kuumala) and Colocasia (talo) tubers. They were planted immediately and carefully tended, for the future quality of life depended on their successful propagation.

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It would be found that in spite of arriving during the appropriate planting season of early summer, several of the species were doomed by New Zealand's temperate climate. but at least the few precious seed kumara, remembered by Te Arawa and Tainui people as te kete rukuruku a Whakaoti-rangi (the closed-up kit of Whake-otirangi), were to survive. An indication of the landfall is provided by the survival of the kumara. In Polynesia the sweet potato grows all year round and is propagated by slips. Only in the north of the North Island would the first plants have survived through the new Zealand winter to provide growing slips for next year's crop. A stroke of lack had landed the voyagers in the only part of New Zealand that allowed the familiar technique of cultivation to continue for a time. Further south and inland, frosts precluded the growing of sweet potato until a way had been discovered of storing the tubers under carefully controlled conditions of temperature and humidity.

The kumara came through together with the paper mulberry, the taro, the gourd and, marginally, the yam. Other plants that were brought, coconuts certainly and perhaps plantains and breadfruit, failed. the settlers were less successful in transporting livestock from home. Perhaps the exigencies of the voyage resulted in their arriving with no pigs, but at least one pregnant dog had survived and, according to tradition, smelt the new land before it could be seen. Thee was one stowaway, the Polynesian rat (kiore). The new land, which even before they landed was seen to be incomparably larger than the islands they knew, was without quadrupeds, but it swarmed with birds, including flightless birds that stood nearly twice as high as a man. countless sea-birds nested here, the coastal waters teemed with fish, and the inter-tidal zone held a much greater variety of succulent molluscs than any tropical island. Great seal rookeries were dotted about the coast and on outlying islands. Initially, at least, thee was no shortage of protein.

As exploration proceeded, everything was found to be on an unfamiliarly large scale. The mountains were higher, and the highest were clothed in an unfamiliar whiteness that the discoverers could only call from (fuka). The rivers, wider and deeper than the streams of home were likened to, and named awa after the deep passes into the island lagoons. there wee great bodies of inland water too, which, knowing no lakes, they called lagoons (roto) or seas (moana). In all the islands with which they were familiar the vegetation, originating as it did almost entirely from south-east Asia, consisted of virtually the same, relatively few species. but the New Zealand flora, through its ancient Gondwanaland connection, has much in common with that of both Australia and South America and its subsequent long isolation had resulted in the evolution of many endemic genera and species which were unfamiliar.

The old names were bestowed on each new plant that shared some feature of those at home. But the new Zealand bush contains such a variety of plant life that the East Polynesian botanical vocabulary was insufficient and the settlers were forced into coining new, compound names. Perhaps the most useful plant in Polynesia, after the coconut, is the pandanus (fara) whose long, narrow leaves are plaited into mats and baskets. Thee was no pandanus here, but a number of plants had leaves or flowers which resembled it. The two species of New Zealand flax were called hara-keke (strong pandanus) and whara riki (small pandanus), respectively, and the epiphytic Collospermum was called the ko-whara-whara (pseudo-pandanus), while the edible flower bract of Freycinetia was called ta-whara (pseudo-pandanus), while the edible flower bract of Freycinetia was called ta-whara (pandanus-fruit), toa being their word for a hand of bananas.

the Malay apple (kafika) does not grow here, but its Polynesian name is a component of at least three Nw Zealand tree names: the kahika, better known today as the pohutukawa, whose many-stamened flowers are similar to those of the Malay apple; the kahika-tea (white kafika) whose fruit, like those of its namesake, are edible; and the kahika-a-toa (warrior kahika), better known as manuka, from whose hard, tough timber weapons were fashioned.

This sort of linguistic adjustment and invention can suggest the likely homeland of the Maori Of particular interest are new, apparently coined names, for creatures whose distribution is restricted in Polynesia. The handsome bird Porphyrio, for example, was common in western Polynesia, where it is called kalae. In New Zealand it is called pakura (red head) in eastern Maori dialects and pukeko (the side-glancer) elsewhere. this suggests that the discoverers of New Zealand came from an island (such as arotonga or Tahiti or even the Marquesas) where there were no swamp-hens. The Maori words for seal are all peculiar to New Zealand and are probably innovations referring to various characteristics of these animals kekeno (look about), ihu-piro (smelly nose), kake-rangi (sky-climber, perhaps from the habit of rearing up). As seals were found in the Marquesas but not in Tahiti or Rarotonga, theMmarquesas are counter-indicated as the Maori homeland.

A slightly different line of reasoning provides another item of evidence against a Marquesan homeland. the proto-Polynesian word for duck (toloa) retains that meaning in the Marquesas but was redefined as gannet in Tahiti and Rarotonga. In New Zealand the word means albatross. Much can be inferred about the small group of 'founders' who carried the restricted gene pool which would ensure that their descendants differed in small but significant ways from the population of Hawaiki. the voyagers were young and fit. the old and the sick do not set out on strenuous voyages of discovery and we may be sure that theirs was such a voyage, for experienced seafarers would not stray by accident so far from the familiar equatorial star paths. It has been demonstrated by computer-simulation that drifting from south-east Polynesia to New Zealand is extremely unlikely. In any case the successful importation of food plants confirms that the first canoe to touch our shore was not some disabled drifter. Quite possibly all of the voyager were potential breeders.

From skeletal and other evidence it is known that their early New Zealand descendants were tall and muscular, the men averaging five foot seven inches, the women being noticeably shorter. Men and women shared the task of paddling canoes as is indicated by the presence of a particular groove on the lower surface of the collarbone. the life span was short, averaging perhaps thirty-five years, and the women seldom had more than four children. though their general nutrition was adequate they suffered from diseases of the gums, occasioned by a generally soft diet, which suggests that the fibrous fern root was not adopted as a staple food for some time after the first settlement. Significantly, the discoverers brought none of the viruses and bacteria that cause measles, rubella, chicken-pox, scarlet fever, gonorrhea or mumps. Nor were they carriers of the more serious scourges of tuberculosis, smallpox or syphilis. Yaws, a disease related to syphilis, was common in Polynesia, but it did not reach or did not survive in New Zealand. In spite of early statements that leprosy occurred in new Zealand, current medical opinion is sceptical. Evidence of severe, even crippling arthritis is widespread in the skeletal record. Infection from decaying teeth and pneumonia were probably major killers.   

New Zealand - Early History - In The Beginning (Part 2)

Maori And Settler - 1642-1870
About New Zealand
Rotorua Visit- New Zealand

An extract from IN THE STRANGE SOUTH SEAS by BEATRICE GRIMSHAW,  published in London by Hutchinson & Co., 1908. 

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