Welcome to New Zealand - About Christchurch
The Town Imagined
Origins to 1852 - and beyond to this day...
The earliest human inhabitants of the area now covered by the city of Christchurch - Moa-hunters, or Archaic Phase Eastern Polynesians - probably arrived as early as AD 1000. At that time the coastal wetland was a thick forest of matai and totara, and parts of the Canterbury Plains may also have been forested. As well as killing off the moa (by about 1450), these earliest inhabitants also burned down forest. Any descendants of the Moa-hunters would have been killed or absorbed by migrating classical Phase Maori from the North Island, most notably Ngati Mamoe and Ngai Tahu during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
By the early nineteenth century the Ngai Turahuriri sub-tribe of Ngai Tahu controlled the coastal area between Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) and the Hurunui river. Their largest fortified pa, at Kaiapoi, may have held as many as a thousand people at its peak and was a major centre for trade in pounamu (greenstone) from the West Coast. Several smaller unfortified kainga, or seasonal settlements, were located within the present city boundaries, most notably at Putaringamotu (Riccarton) and Papanui, where isolated islands of tall forest had survived in a sea of tussock grassland and swamp.
Possibly as many as five thousand Maori lived in central Canterbury by 1800, mostly at Kaiapoi and on Banks Peninsula, where the main settlements were at Akaroa, Puari (Port Levy), Purau and Rapaki. The main track between Kaipoi and Rapaki passed through the heart of the present city, following sandy ridges through the swamps which then lay between the two main rivers, Otakaro (Avon) and Opawaho (Heathcote). Putaringamotu in particular was a valuable mahinga kai, or food-gathering place, with an abundance of birds, eels, fish and freshwater crayfish. The Maori name for Christchurch is Otautahi, 'the place of Tautahi', a Ngai Tahu chief who was buried near the present St Luke's Church vicarage around the 1750s. The first Europeans known to set foot in Canterbury were from the sealing ship Governor Bligh, which spent a fortnight in one of the Bays of Banks Peninsula about 1815. But the first to visit the site of what is now Christchurch stayed only long enough to bury one of their shipmates.
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