New Zealand was first settled in the 13th century, study finds

The Māori came and settled in New Zealand, a land which they called Aotearoa, in the mid-13th century, according to new archaeological research.

The research was led by Dr Magdalena Bunbury of James Cook University. The study used radiocarbon dating of 436 archaeological sites in the North Island and 145 sites in the South Islands, which have enabled researchers to firm up the date of New Zealand’s first settlement.


“For decades, the initial human settlement of New Zealand has been estimated to have occurred between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries,” said Dr Bunbury. “This study has narrowed that down and shown that early Māori settlement happened in the North Island between AD 1250 and AD 1275.”

Bunbury said the South Island was reached just a decade later between AD 1280-1295, when the hunting of the giant flightless moa bird commenced, and the human population rapidly grew. But when the bird was hunted to extinction and a period of unstable cooler weather known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ began, the South Island’s Māori population came under pressure.


“Population growth in the South Island appears to have levelled off around AD 1340 and declined between AD 1380 and 1420 with the onset of the Little Ice Age and the extinction of the moa. The population continued to grow in the north, where conditions for agriculture were optimal,” added Dr Bunbury.

The first European settlers did not arrive in New Zealand until the 1840s.

Dr Bunbury said the study shows for the first time a measurable difference in the initial human settlements of the north and south islands of New Zealand. “The results demonstrate connections between climate, resources, and population and will help us understand how human populations developed in other island nations.”

The article, “A new chronology for the Māori settlement of Aotearoa (NZ) and the potential role of climate change in demographic developments,” by Magdalena M.E. Bunbury, Fiona Petchey and Simon H. Bickler, appears in PNAS. Click here to access it.

Top Image: Courtesy James Cook University