When we remember that the Maoris volunteered no traditional information about the extinct moa (Dinornis) until Europeans had unearthed its bones, said nothing about the Chatham Islands until after their discovery by Europeans, only recalled dim memories of inhabitants before the Fleet of A.D. 1350 in response to persistent questioning by Europeans, and could not tell us whether Hawaiki was Tahiti or Samoa, we realize the always supine rôle of Maori tradition in aiding the researches of the culture historian.
However the sheer mass and variety of these orally transmitted traditions prevented the student from realizing how irrelevant they were to his theme, and caused him to believe that the Maori purpose in transmitting traditions was like his—to satisfy an essentially academic curiosity about the past. The gradual cessation of the output of published traditions has given students the leisure to realize the limitations of those already recorded, and sobered us against the expectation that a Maori tradition current in the 19th century might include a description of a bird which lived perhaps in the 13th, or go into detail over the appearance and habits of the tribes whom his Fleet ancestors dispossessed in the 14th.
Fortunately the need for the family to maintain its status within the clan, the clan within the tribe, and the tribe as against other tribes, did involve the careful transmission of family trees (Whakapapa). By comparing the number of generations in many lines back to a Fleet ancestor, the arrival of the Fleet was placed in the mid-14th century. By a brilliant application of the method beyond New Zealand, Percy Smith found a three generation name sequence immediately prior to the Fleet arrival common to Hawaii, the Society Islands, the Cook Islands and New Zealand. This established with reasonable certainty that the movement which brought the canoes of the Fleet to New Zealand originated in the Society Islands and simultaneously sent migrants to the Hawaiian and Cook groups. Traditions in New Zealand recorded with a significant unanimity the names of the canoes of the Fleet migration, their landing places, and the tribes which sprang from each. They noted the introduction by the immigrants of the sweet potato (kumara), the taro (Colocasia antiquorum), the gourd (Lagenaria), and the yam (uwhi), both by means of references to incidents of the voyage or by accounts of subsequent return trips to Hawaiki to fetch these plants.