Polynesian Foundation (1280-1642)
New Zealand was originally settled by Polynesians from Eastern Polynesia. The most current reliable evidence strongly indicates that initial settlement of New Zealand occurred around 1280. The descendants of these settlers became known as the Māori, forming a distinct culture of their own.

The original settlers quickly exploited the abundant large game (birds) in New Zealand, such as moa, large flightless ratites that were pushed to extinction by about 1500. As moa and other large game became scarce or extinct, Māori culture underwent major change, with regional differences. In areas where it was possible to grow taro (tropical plant) and kūmara (sweet potato), horticulture became more important. Conflicts also increased in importance, reflecting increased competition for land and other resources. In this period, fortified pā (villages) became more common.

Leadership was based on a system of chieftainship, which was often but not always hereditary, although chiefs (male or female) needed to demonstrate leadership abilities to avoid being superseded by more dynamic individuals. Traditional Māori society preserved history orally through narratives, songs, and chants; skilled experts could recite the tribal genealogies (whakapapa) back for hundreds of years. Arts included whaikōrero (oratory), song composition in multiple genres, dance forms including haka, as well as weaving, highly developed wood carving, and tā moko (tattoo).

Birds, fish and sea mammals were important sources of protein. Māori cultivated food plants which they had brought with them from Polynesia, including sweet potatoes, taro, gourds and yams. They also cultivated the cabbage tree, and exploited wild foods such as fern root.