Kiwiosities: The Great Migration

Generations of New Zealanders, many Maori included, were brought up accepting the myth of the  great migration (to New Zealand by Maori), and other tales about the early settlement of New Zealand. These traditions told that Aotearoa was discovered in AD 950 by Kupe, rediscovered by his descendant Toi in AD1150 and settled by way of a great migration from Hawaiki in 1350. The story was recorded by such 19th century scholars as Stephenson Percy Smith and accepted by most until the 1970s.

Then, ethnologist D.R. Simmons examined the Maori traditions again and found that the dates of various tribes did not match up. By counting back the generations of tribal whakapapa, Simmons argued that the canoes could not have come together but were spread over some 300 years of journeying. Besides which, the legend of 12 canoes sailing in a great fleet to populate New Zealand, did not sit easily with the stories of 85 canoes recorded amongst the tribes.

There were also several different accounts of Kupe’s voyaging, and tales of more than one Toi. Modern analysis tends to concentrate on traditional tales of individual tribes related to archaeological evidence. Settlement of New Zealand by Maori is now estimated to have been 800 years ago. The canoe traditions are those of individual tribes settling new land, in some cases from New Zealand.

Excerpts from Kiwiosities, a book by Gordon Ell on the traditions and folklore of New Zealand.

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Gordon Ell, a former journalist and wildlife film-maker, is the author of many popular books about New Zealand's historic and natural heritage.