The Early History of Australia & New Zealand

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

The early history of Australia and New Zealand is the history of its aboriginal people. Learn about the early history of Australia and New Zealand, before and immediately after the arrival of Europeans.


Long ago, before Europeans grew their empires to stretch across the world, we were all aborigines. An aborigine is a person, animal, or plant that is native to a particular country or region. Aborigines are those who live in the same place where their ancestors have lived for thousands of years, perhaps for as long as humans have been there at all.

Although Europeans have settled in many areas of the globe, they arrived in Australia and New Zealand only relatively recently. So the history of these lands is really the history of the aboriginal people.

Australia (called New Holland at that time) and New Zealand are located between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. Australia is south of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
1818 map of New Zealand and Australia

Aborigines of Australia

Australia is home to dozens of groups of indigenous tribes, each with its own language and culture. Their history goes back at least 40,000 years, a history of strong dependence on the land and water, hunting, fishing and gathering the resources of the local area. They are considered to be one of the earliest human migrations out of Africa, or at the very least we have no evidence of any other place from which they came. They have no clear relationship with Asian or Polynesian cultures.

Australian Aboriginal Art
Australian Aboriginal Art

Aborigines of New Zealand

As you can see from the map above, New Zealand is much smaller than Australia. Its tribes were more cohesive and are collectively known as the Maori. Maori oral history speaks of an ancestral home of Hawaiki in tropical Polynesia. They are believed to have arrived in New Zealand between 1250 and 1300 CE. Though the Maori share many of that region's customs and systems of organization, it has become distinct from the culture of east Polynesia and is unique today.

In the early centuries after settlement, the Maori seemed to have few weapons or fortifications, and life expectancy was short. Settlements were mostly along coasts, with temporary seasonal hunting settlements further inland. Things changed for the Maori due to a series of natural disasters, like earthquakes and tsunamis, which destroyed settlements and caused their main food species (a flightless bird called the moa) to go extinct. This led to fighting between tribes for resources and the development of a warrior culture of which cannibalism was a part. Despite this, Maori society became successful and prosperous.

Maori haka (greeting and war dance)
Maori haka (greeting and war dance)

The Arrival of Europeans in Australia

The arrival of Europeans changed everything. This happened in Australia in 1770 when James Cook claimed the east coast for Britain. Colonization proper started in 1788 with the formation of a penal colony in Botany Bay.

Painting of James Cook
Painting of James Cook

Though initial contact was peaceful, and many aborigines did assimilate into British society, the land was mostly taken by invasion. This invasion was not just a military one - the Europeans also brought with them diseases like smallpox and measles, which killed huge numbers of aborigines. As the Europeans drove people off their lands to claim them for their own, the subsequent loss of food and water sources for the Aborigines contributed to large numbers of deaths. Part of the problem was that despite its overall size, there was relatively little fertile land in Australia, and the aborigines were pushed out of all of these areas by the 1870s.

The spiritual connection that the aboriginal people had to the land was ignored - the Europeans saw them as nomads who could settle elsewhere. These two factors reduced the population from between 315,000 and 1.25 million (nobody is really sure) to a tiny fraction of what it once was. Over ten thousand may have been killed by direct warfare alone.

Australian aboriginal leader
Australian aboriginal leader

The Arrival of Europeans in New Zealand

New Zealand was first visited by Abel Tasman in 1642, and then by James Cook in 1769. In New Zealand, early contact was often combative and full of misunderstanding. There were even cases of Europeans being cannibalized. These stories sometimes caused ships to give New Zealand a wide berth, but people wouldn't stay away forever. By the early 19th century, New Zealand had many visitors. This included dozens of seal and whale hunting ships, escaped convicts from Australia, deserters, and Christian missionaries.

Tribes became influenced by European culture and acquired guns from them. This led to wars between tribes, as groups tried to use the weapons to their advantage. European disease also killed from 10 to 50 percent of the population, though this was far less than in Australia.

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