Brian Hooker

New Zealand


Migrants Without Descendents




Brian Hooker


[ Brian Hooker 2006. The text that follows is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review, no part may be reproduced without prior permission.]


The present interest in early Pacific navigation and evidence recently publicised by Dr Richard Holdaway a Christchurch scientist, concerning kiore (Polynesian rats), has rekindled the debate about the time Polynesians first settled in New Zealand and whether they arrived by accident or on deliberate colonising voyages. Dr Holdaway has produced data based on carbon dating of kiore bones, which suggests that Polynesian rats arrived in New Zealand nearly 2000 years ago.

According to Janet Davidson, in her book The prehistory of New Zealand, the present orthodox view among archaeologists is that New Zealand was inhabited for not more than 1000 years before its rediscovery by James Cook in 1769. Professor Geoff Irwin of Auckland University has recently been reported as saying 'all the archaeological evidence suggested New Zealand was first settled by the east Polynesian ancestors about 800 years ago.'

Part of the present view is that successful introduction of plants and animals proves that the settlement of New Zealand was a planned colonisation. Since it was highly unlikely that kiore arrived without human accompaniment, Dr Holdaway's research adds weight to the argument that people settled in New Zealand through accidental voyaging, 1200 or more years previous to the date generally accepted by scholars. No doubt, the kiore sailed as stowaways on the large Polynesian sailing-vessels when they departed from islands in east Polynesia.

Accidental voyages

The idea of accidental voyages is unconnected with a theory of drift voyaging which suggests that ancient Pacific sailors were at the mercy of the wind and ocean currents. A computer simulation study of Polynesian voyaging finalised in 1973, concluded that uncontrolled voyages had a low chance of success when applied to the problem of reaching New Zealand from any part of eastern Polynesia.

A noted New Zealand scholar Dr Andrew Sharp, is often credited as the author of a theory on drift voyages but Sharp opposed the idea and promoted the concept that Polynesians maintained control over their vessels at all times. The nub of Sharp's theory is that Polynesians reached New Zealand by accident after long un-navigated voyages. Since all the islands of Polynesia were discovered by chance whether by Polynesians or Europeans any argument about whether New Zealand was discovered by accident is nonsensical. In addition, Sharp did not believe New Zealand was settled once and subsequently isolated as some recent writers have declared.

Polynesians were skilled and fearless seafarers; they were capable of detecting land from a considerable distance and no doubt they steered towards New Zealand long before land was sighted. It is difficult to understand why some scholars believe it was necessary for Polynesians to return to their homeland to collect plants and animals. There are no reasons why plants and animals could not have been introduced through numerous one-way voyages from east Polynesia to New Zealand.

                         Navigated voyages                              

In recent years a number of eminent scholars have commented on the long-distance navigational skills of Polynesians. In her book Two worlds, Anne Salmond endorses the view expressed by other authors that early Polynesian voyagers did not settle New Zealand by accident but they migrated through planned voyages.

Not only have a large number of books and articles been written on the subject of long-distance Polynesian voyaging but replica voyages have been carried out to try and prove that ancient Pacific mariners were capable of deliberately navigating long distances without instruments. However, the experimenters and writers have failed to produce evidence of an ancient system of position finding that enabled Polynesian migrants to return to their homeland and then relocate their remote discovery. There is no proof that any vessel returned to east Polynesia and then sailed back to New Zealand.

In any case the claims concerning navigated two-way voyages are a red herring in the argument concerning early settlement. That people were found living in New Zealand at the time of European discovery proves that ancestors of the Maori arrived and settled in this country.

Sporadic settlement

In the context of the long history of oceanic exploration it is a romantic and unrealistic notion to think that males and females arrived together on the first and many of the subsequent long voyages that reached New Zealand. Observations made by Europeans in historic times indicate that families including women and children sometimes sailed on ocean-going vessels. But facts recorded by early Europeans in the Pacific over an extended period suggest that generally few Polynesian vessels carried women.

If small groups of males survived after long voyages and landed at widely-separated localities in New Zealand, at intervals from the time of the first landing to the start of continuing settlement, some evidence relating to these lonely settlers undoubtedly exists. Pa and villages built during the period of continuing settlement were not necessarily constructed on the same sites as settlements created by original colonists.

There is a considerable amount of evidence supporting a theory that Polynesians settled on a number of other Pacific islands and were unable to leave descendants. When Europeans first landed on Caroline, Necker, Palmerston, Norfolk, Pitcairn, Henderson, and islands in the Kermadec group, they found them deserted but Polynesian-type relics were unearthed. Some scholars, who regard these islands as 'mystery' islands, believe the settlers moved on or in the case of the Kermadecs used the land as a staging post for migrants en route to New Zealand. But a more logical explanation for the absence of people when Europeans arrived is that Polynesians reached these islands through un-navigated voyages and lived out their lives in celibacy.

It is likely that continuing settlement commenced considerably earlier than 800 years ago if male-only colonists started to arrive around 2,000 years ago. The laws of probability indicate that 1200 years is too long for the period during which females failed to arrive.

The ratio between the survivors who reached New Zealand and the number lost at sea on long voyages over a considerable time is impossible to estimate. A sad fact often mentioned by writers is that over hundreds of years countless numbers of people perished in the Pacific during long voyages. Perhaps for every survivor a thousand people were lost. Janet Davidson repeats the statement that over 2000 years of Polynesian voyaging the cost in lives was 'half a million souls lost at sea.'

The accepted view on Polynesian settlement, which is no more than a theory, becomes weaker as new archaeological findings are made. At the same time the notion that Polynesians first settled in New Zealand 2000 or more years ago must remain no more than an hypothesis unless or until evidence of human occupation turns up which matches the age of kiore bones. □

A Polynesian ocean-going vessel observed by the Dutch explorers Le Maire and Schouten during their traverse of the Pacific Ocean in 1616. Similar vessels no doubt carried the first migrants to New Zealand.  - Illustration from an early Dutch account of Le Maire's voyage.