The origins of the Māori people lie in East Polynesia. Between 1000-1200AD, Polynesians crossed the South Pacific ocean in several large canoes and arrived at New Zealand. There are extensive traditions about these canoes, including details of their construction, crews, migration routes, marine creatures encountered, arrival in New Zealand, and dispersal of the crews and their families.
Since the 1850s, these traditions have been recorded and published by ethnographers, and by Māori people themselves. Māori often published their canoe traditions in tribal newspapers, which were themselves typically names for ancestral canoes (J. Curnow et al (ed), Rere Atu, Taku Manu: Discovering History, Language and Politics in Māori Language Newspapers. Auckland University Press. 2002).
In New Zealand, the Polynesian settlers developed a range of canoe types for sea, river and lake travel. The canoe types include: single-hulled canoes; double-hulled canoes; outriggers; war canoes; fishing canoes; river canoes; and, children’s canoes. War canoes were typically ornately carved and decorated, to reflect and enhance tribal status.
The first European accounts of waka were recorded by Captain James Cook and his crew in 1769. For example:
Their canoes had from eighteen to twenty-two men in them, and were adorned with fine heads made out of a thick board, cut through like fillagree work, in spirals of very curious workmanship. At the end of this was a head with two large eyes of mother-of-pearl, and a large heart-shaped tongue. This figure went round the bottom of the board, and had feet and hands carved into it very neatly, and painted red. They had also high-peaked sterns, wrought in fillagree, and adorned with feathers, from the top of which depended two long streamers, made of feathers, which almost reached the water (Parkinson, cited in Elsdon Best, The Māori Canoe. Dominion Museum, Wellington. 1925:53)
Parkison also noted the use of haka (war dances) and traditional methods of marking time for paddlers. This account, and others recorded by Cook and his crew, provide evidence that the designs and practices associated with waka have been retained over the last 250 years.