Archaeological evidence indicates that New Zealand was populated by fishing and hunting people of East Polynesian ancestry perhaps 1,000 years before Europeans arrived. Known to some scholars as the Moa-hunters, they may have merged with later waves of Polynesians who, according to Maori tradition, arrived between 952 and 1150. Some of the Maoris called their new homeland "Aotearoa," usually translated as "land of the long white cloud."
In 1642, Abel Tasman, a Dutch navigator, made the first recorded European sighting of New Zealand and sketched sections of the two main islands' west coasts. English Captain James Cook thoroughly explored the coastline during three South Pacific voyages beginning in 1769. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, lumbering, seal hunting, and whaling attracted a few European settlers to New Zealand. In 1840, the United Kingdom established British sovereignty through the Treaty of Waitangi signed that year with Maori chiefs.
In the same year, selected groups from the United Kingdom began the colonization process. Expanding European settlement led to conflict with Maori, most notably in the Maori land wars of the 1860s. British and colonial forces eventually overcame determined Maori resistance. During this period, many Maori died from disease and warfare, much of it intertribal.
Constitutional government began to develop in the 1850s. In 1867, the Maori won the right to a certain number of reserved seats in parliament. During this period, the livestock industry began to expand, and the foundations of New Zealand's modern economy took shape. By the end of the 19th century, improved transportation facilities made possible a great overseas trade in wool, meat, and dairy products.
By the 1890s, parliamentary government along democratic lines was well-established, and New Zealand's social institutions assumed their present form. Women received the right to vote in national elections in 1893. The turn of the century brought sweeping social reforms that built the foundation for New Zealand's version of the welfare state.
The Maori gradually recovered from population decline and, through interaction and intermarriage with settlers and missionaries, adopted much of European culture. In recent decades, Maori have become increasingly urbanized and have become more politically active and culturally assertive.
New Zealand was declared a dominion by a royal proclamation in 1907. It achieved full internal and external autonomy by the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act in 1947, although this merely formalized a situation that had existed for many years.The conservative National Party and left-leaning Labour Party have dominated New Zealand political life since a Labour government came to power in 1935. During 14 years in office, the Labour Party implemented a broad array of social and economic legislation, including comprehensive social security, a large-scale public works program, a 40-hour workweek, a minimum basic wage, and compulsory unionism. The National Party won control of the government in 1949 and adopted many welfare measures instituted by the Labour Party. Except for two brief periods of Labour governments in 1957-60 and 1972-75, National held power until 1984. After regaining control in 1984, the Labour government instituted a series of radical market-oriented reforms in response to New Zealand's mounting external debt. It also enacted anti-nuclear legislation that effectively brought about New Zealand's suspension from the ANZUS security alliance with the United States and Australia.
In October 1990, the National Party again formed the government, for the first of three 3-year terms. In 1996, New Zealand inaugurated a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system to elect its parliament. The system was designed to increase representation of smaller parties in parliament and appears to have done so in the MMP elections to date. Since 1996, neither the National nor the Labour Party has had an absolute majority in parliament, and for all but one of those years, the government has been a minority one. The current Labour government followed its November 1999 election success by outpolling National 41% to 21% in July 2002 elections. Labour formed a coalition, minority government with the Progressive Coalition, a left-wing party holding two seats in parliament. The government relies on support from the centrist United Future Party to pass legislation.