7 Oct 2019

1: Prehistoric New Zealand

From The Aotearoa History Show, 7:00 am on 7 October 2019

In part one of The Aotearoa History Show, Zealandia is formed, volcanoes and ice ages make their mark and we ask what happened to our mammals.

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By William Ray

I used to think that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed after the New Zealand Wars ended.

That’s how wars are supposed to end, right? After the fighting is over you get around a table and work out a deal.

We'd been taught about the Treaty at school and I was vaguely aware of the New Zealand Wars. I knew both were connected somehow so I just leaped to what seemed like the logical conclusion. 

Over the past year I’ve had a chance to talk to a bunch of history teachers and historians and I found out this sort of fundamental misunderstanding of our history is pretty common. When we learn history we usually focus on one facet in isolation – the Goldrush, Gallipoli, the Treaty of Waitangi, the New Zealand Wars, the Nuclear Free Movement. What we often miss is how those facets fit together. Year after year, one person inspiring another, one policy sparking a reaction.

It’s past time we start to join the dots.

That’s what we set out to do in the Aotearoa History show. We are connecting the pieces so people can see the wider picture of how our land and people have been shaped, and some of the forces that did that shaping.

This series traverses a hundred million years, all way from this land’s geological origins, through discovery, and war, and innovation, and political wrangling through until the modern day. Though, to be fair, most of those millions of years are done and dusted in episode one.

What happened to Aotearoa’s mammals? How did Aotearoa’s first people arrive? What were the geopolitical forces underpinning British colonisation? How come our stereotype of your typical Kiwi bloke looks like that guy from the Speights commercials?

The answers to these questions can go off in all kinds of weird directions. And sometimes they can challenge your assumptions.

Maori witness first arrival of European ships. Animation by Chris Maguren

Maori witness first arrival of European ships. Animation by Chris Maguren Photo: RNZ

For one thing, it’s easy to assume that the British were 100 percent keen on the idea of colonising Aotearoa, but that’s just not true. There was a significant faction in Britain who thought their Empire was already overextended. To those people, attempting to colonise Aotearoa felt like biting off more than they could chew. There was also an influential humanitarian lobby who were deeply concerned about the impact of colonisation on Māori and the rights of indigenous peoples.

As much as possible we’ve tried to put our history into that kind of wider perspective; not just look at what, when and how things happened but also get into the question of why. A lot of our history is not as well-known as it should be (hence the importance of the government’s decision to make it a compulsory subject in schools). But neither is it well enough appreciated that our understanding of that history is ever-growing and always up for debate.

We’re also taking a deeper look at sides of our history that often go unmentioned. Sometimes that’s because they are unpleasant but also because it’s perceived as too technical (or dare we say, too boring?).

For example, there’s been a huge amount of talk about the need to emphasise the importance of the New Zealand Wars to our history, and while we do spend a full two episodes on those defining conflicts, we also look at other aspects of the evolving relationship between Māori and the government.

After all, direct land confiscation from the wars only accounts for about five percent New Zealand’s landmass. The story behind how the rest of Aotearoa’s land shifted from Māori to Pākehā hands might not be quite as dramatic but it’s equally important, and in many cases, tragic. 

Tragedy and conflict is only part of it though. We also look at the more inspiring stories from the past. To be honest, one thing that really surprised me in researching and writing this series is just how radical New Zealand was by the standards of its time – we’re famous as the first self-governing country where women could vote, but we also had a whole lot of lesser known firsts.

In the late 19th century we were one of the most radically progressive nations in the world. And while our ideas might not have always panned out (or even been that good in the first place) it’s still a far cry from the old-fashioned idea that New Zealand is a land without history or vigour.

Let’s just be clear, this series doesn’t cover everything. It doesn’t even cover nearly everything. If my colleagues at RNZ hadn’t reigned me in, every episode of this show would be double the length and probably make half as much sense.

The idea behind The Aotearoa History Show is to give people a place to start; a framework they can use to build a deeper understanding of our past.

Hopefully it will inspire you to learn more about the story of this land and its people.

Hopefully it will help you understand why modern New Zealand looks the way it does.

Hopefully it might even give a spark of inspiration about where we could go to next.


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Photo: RNZ/NZ On Air


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