The discovery of Aotearoa

Having evolved in isolation for millions of years, the ecology (organisms and their environment) of Aotearoa / New Zealand was unprepared for the arrival of humans. This had devastating consequences.

The impact of human settlement in Aotearoa / New Zealand

Archaeological evidence supports the Māori discovery of Aotearoa as early as 1280 with the main wave of Māori settlers arriving from Polynesia between AD 1320 and 1350. They brought with them a way of life consisting of protocols, customs and language to a land previously uninhabited by humans. Māori also introduced a number of exotic plant crops and animals including the first terrestrial predatory mammals, the kiore (Pacific rat) and kuri (dog).

Within a few hundred years, sustained human harvesting, wiped out at least 28 known bird species including all nine species of moa, most of the the large, meaty birds such as the NZ goose and Adzebils, North Island Takahe, and several species of penguin including the Waitaha (yellow eyed) penguin.

Once abundant along the coast, marine mammals such as the NZ and Chatham Island sea lion were harvested to extinction on the mainland by 1500 and the geographical range of the fur seal dramatically reduced soon after human arrival. Similarly, numbers of colonial seabirds declined sharply near populated coastal areas.

Populations of other smaller, flightless and poor flying species were also heavily targeted by Maori for food and/or became extinct or declined significantly due to predation by kiore. Kiore introduction also resulted in the complete disappearance of Tuatara from the mainland, the extinction of at least 3 frogs and devastation of invertebrate ecology.

The loss of mature forest

During this same period large areas of the original forest cover, especially on the drier eastern sides of the main islands, were lost through fire. Some areas were accidentally burned while other areas intentionally burned to clear land for cultivation and villages and to make it easier to hunt certain game, such as burrowing seabirds.

Some of the cleared areas, if they were not repeatedly fired, regenerated into bracken and scrublands, providing habitat for some birds, reptiles and invertebrates. However, habitat for species that prefer mature forest was significantly reduced.

Expanding matauranga Māori

With the progressive extinction of many of the large birds through overharvesting, Māori increasingly concentrated on the marine and coastal environments for protein.

Well known whakataukī (oral proverbs) dated between 1500-1650 such as 'Mate ā-moa - dead like the moa' and 'Kua ngaro i te ngaro o te moa - Perished as the moa perished' provide evidence that there was a growing awareness amongst Māori of the ecological and social implications of hunting species to extinction.

Over time, matauranga Māori (collective knowledge) of the natural capital of the Aotearoa environment deepened, and measures such as rāhui (a temporary closed season) were used to allow stocks of various resources to recover.

Today we look to Māori and their deep understanding of nature, formed over almost a thousand years of occupation, to guide the protection of species and restoration of ecosystems in Aotearoa.