Sometime between 1250 and 1300, Polynesians settled in the islands that later were named New Zealand and developed a distinctive Māori culture. In 1642, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first European to sight New Zealand. In 1840, representatives of the United Kingdom and Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which declared British sovereignty over the islands. In 1841 New Zealand became a colony within the British Empire and in 1907 it became a Dominion; it gained full independence in 1947, but the British monarch remained the head of state. Today, the majority of New Zealand's population of 4.7 million is of European descent; the indigenous Māori are the largest minority, followed by Asians and Pacific Islanders. Reflecting this, New Zealand's culture is mainly derived from Māori and early British settlers, with recent broadening arising from increased immigration. The official languages are English (de facto), Māori and NZ Sign Language, with English being very dominant.
New Zealand is a developed country and ranks highly in international comparisons of national performance, such as health, education, economic freedom and quality of life. Since the 1980s, New Zealand has transformed from an agrarian, regulated economy to a diverse market economy. Nationally, legislative authority is vested in an elected, unicameral Parliament, while executive political power is exercised by the Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister, who is currently Jacinda Ardern. Queen Elizabeth II is the country's head of state and is represented by a governor-general, currently Dame Patsy Reddy. In addition, New Zealand is organised into 11 regional councils and 67 territorial authorities for local government purposes. The Realm of New Zealand also includes Tokelau (a dependent territory); the Cook Islands and Niue (self-governing states in free association with New Zealand); and the Ross Dependency, which is New Zealand's territorial claim in Antarctica. New Zealand is a member of the ASEAN Plus mechanism, United Nations, Commonwealth of Nations, ANZUS, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Pacific Islands Forum, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sighted New Zealand in 1642 and named it Staten Land "in honour of the States General" (Dutch parliament). He wrote, "it is possible that this land joins to the Staten Land but it is uncertain", referring to a landmass of the same name at the southern tip of South America, discovered by Jacob Le Maire in 1616.
Aotearoa (pronounced //; often translated as "land of the long white cloud") is the current Māori name for New Zealand. It is unknown whether Māori had a name for the whole country before the arrival of Europeans, with Aotearoa originally referring to just the North Island. Māori had several traditional names for the two main islands, including Te Ika-a-Māui (the fish of Māui) for the North Island and Te Waipounamu (the waters of greenstone) or Te Waka o Aoraki (the canoe of Aoraki) for the South Island. Early European maps labelled the islands North (North Island), Middle (South Island) and South (Stewart Island / Rakiura). In 1830, maps began to use North and South to distinguish the two largest islands and by 1907 this was the accepted norm. The New Zealand Geographic Board discovered in 2009 that the names of the North Island and South Island had never been formalised, and names and alternative names were formalised in 2013. This set the names as North Island or Te Ika-a-Māui, and South Island or Te Waipounamu. For each island, either its English or Māori name can be used, or both can be used together.
New Zealand was one of the last major landmasses settled by humans. Radiocarbon dating, evidence of deforestation and mitochondrial DNA variability within Māori populations suggest New Zealand was first settled by Eastern Polynesians between 1250 and 1300, concluding a long series of voyages through the southern Pacific islands. Over the centuries that followed, these settlers developed a distinct culture now known as Māori. The population was divided into iwi (tribes) and hapū (subtribes) who would sometimes cooperate, sometimes compete and sometimes fight against each other. At some point a group of Māori migrated to Rēkohu, now known as the Chatham Islands, where they developed their distinct Moriori culture. The Moriori population was all but wiped out between 1835 and 1862, largely because of Taranaki Māori invasion and enslavement in the 1830s, although European diseases also contributed. In 1862 only 101 survived, and the last known full-blooded Moriori died in 1933.
The first Europeans known to have reached New Zealand were Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and his crew in 1642. In a hostile encounter, four crew members were killed and at least one Māori was hit by canister shot. Europeans did not revisit New Zealand until 1769 when British explorer James Cook mapped almost the entire coastline. Following Cook, New Zealand was visited by numerous European and North American whaling, sealing and trading ships. They traded European food, metal tools, weapons and other goods for timber, Māori food, artefacts and water. The introduction of the potato and the musket transformed Māori agriculture and warfare. Potatoes provided a reliable food surplus, which enabled longer and more sustained military campaigns. The resulting intertribal Musket Wars encompassed over 600 battles between 1801 and 1840, killing 30,000–40,000 Māori. From the early 19th century, Christian missionaries began to settle New Zealand, eventually converting most of the Māori population. The Māori population declined to around 40% of its pre-contact level during the 19th century; introduced diseases were the major factor.