Changing Planet

The Genographic Team Goes to New Zealand

Kia ora, or Hello from Gisborne, a small city on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand.

Approaching the Gisborne harbour
photo by Colby Bishop

Just west of the International date line, Gisborne claimed for years to be the first city in the world to see each new day’s sunrise, but for political reasons the title is now held by Apia, Samoa. Gisborne is also where Captain James Cook stepped ashore on to the north island in October 1769 meeting the Maori for the first time. This week, the Genographic team is on an expedition working closely with the Maori, the indigenous people from of New Zealand. We are joining the efforts of Dr. Lisa Matisoo-Smith, the Genographic Principal Investigator for the Oceania region, in her work to better understand Polynesian history and use genetics to uncover how people came to populate the islands of the vast Pacific Ocean.

Coast of North Island, New Zealand
photo by Glynnis Breen

New Zealand is also special because it is the last land mass ever to be populated. And the Genographic Project’s expedition to New Zealand is part of Dr. Matisoo-Smith’s multi-year study titled “From Africa to Aotearoa (the Maori word for New Zealand).” Her study attempts to trace human migration from our deepest roots in Africa to the distant South Pacific, where we find one of the human family tree’s newest branch tips. All Genographic Project participants can trace their personal branch of the human family tree back to Africa, where modern human first arose more than 150,000 years ago. But humans first reach New Zealand only 800 years ago, and thus the Maori represent one the tree’s youngest branches. Visit to learn more about the project and stay tuned as we chronicle our field work here in New Zealand, and across the world.

Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.
  • winston moreton

    Thanks for the plugs . Small point is Apia a city too?

  • Blake Byles

    Kia Ora Miguel,
    I’m looking forward to news of the Genographic Team’s findings. Just a quick correction on the article: you’ll find Dr Matisoo-Smith’s study is titled ‘From Africa to Aotearoa’, Aotearoa meaning ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ in Te Reo Maori.

  • Matt McGregor

    I’m very interested in this study

    Over the last few years I have personally wanted someone or had in my mind to research Maori populations via genetics for similar outcomes

    One question I am very interested in is was there a pre-Maori population of possible Melanision descent those being of the Moariori group of people. And all though this hypothesis has declined in recent years due to language similarities. Could this of occurred from parroting ? Are the Moariori of the Chatham Island the relic population of an original group of peoples ? And if so. Do some Maori hold certain markers in their Genome from them during contact ?

    My Girlfriend is a descendant of Tamati Waka Nene. A North Island Maori chief who observed captain cooks landing and met him

    I myself am of indigenous descent but from the Australian Aborigines

    Good luck

  • Fire Haired

    “All Genographic Project participants can trace their personal branch of the human family tree back to Africa, where modern human first arose more than 150,000 years ago. But humans first reach New Zealand only 800 years ago, and thus the Maori represent one the tree’s youngest branches.”

    It is not like our mtDNA and Y DNA says “you come from Africa”. After sampling mtDNA and Y DNA of people around the world and creating a phylogenetic tree of Y DNA and mtDNA it was found there is much more diversity in sub Saharan Africans. All Eurasians(except ones with sub Saharan paternal or maternal lineages) are apart of either two subclades of L3: M and N. While in Sub Sahara Africa there are many subclades of L3 and cousins of L3 and so and so on and its a similar situation with Y DNA. Plus in admixtures all Eurasians cluster together in one component(if it is a low K level) and all sub Saharans cluster together in one component. I think humanity(or at least modern one’s ancestors) began in Africa but who knows.

    The Maori’s genetics did not form when they arrived in New Zealand. They have just as ancient ancestors as anyone else. Geography is just geography not ancestry. My maternal line is from Germany when my great great grandmother immigrated to America did her mtDNA suddenly change no, my HVR1, HVR2, and coding regions are probably no different than some relatives in Germany.

  • Juan Furtado de Lacerda

    Fiquei fascinado com tudo, não tem em português? abraço

  • Christoph Bodmer

    I have a really interesting situation. My parents are both from Switzerland and the DNA test results show that I am 43% Mediterannean, 39% Northern European, 16% Southwest Asian which is common for a European. The surprise was that I have 2% Oceanic from PNG, Fiji and Vanuatu in the South Pacific. As far as I know all the family are from Switzerland so how did someone migrate back to Europe after having been in the South Pacific?

  • Derek

    Maybe they will realise there were a few different races here before Maori. More than likely it will be covered up. In the Far North of NZ are megalithic sites that have had restrictions placed on carbon dating finds for 75 years, not to be released until 2063 . Call me crazy but I live there and am not blind

  • Michael Gross

    Ten years ago on a visit to New Zealand, we were told by some of our very gracious Maori hosts that they would not consent to DNA analysis of migratory patterns. They said that they know by oral history where they came from geographically and did not wish to be in any way contradicted. We respected those cultural/religious preferences but were sad that we would lose valuable insight into those indigenous people. Have attitudes changed?

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