New Zealand broke away from Gondwana, an ancient landmass that existed approximately 80 million years ago. Around 5 million years ago, New Zealand's two main islands began to form from a single land mass geologists have named 'Rangitata'.
New Zealand's land area was covered in rainforest with these forests remaining in many areas to this day. Although deforestation has taken a heavy toll, many forests do remain because they grow in hard to reach places such as mountainous areas and also because there was less time to deforest the land due to New Zealand being the newest country to be discovered. The islands of New Zealand still have plenty of natural areas covered in native forests compared with other countries.
Isolated from the rest of the world by the vast Pacific Ocean, the fauna of New Zealand adapted independently giving rise to numerous flightless birds of which the most famous example is the still existing Kiwi and the now extinct Giant Moa. The recently extinct Haast Eagle was the largest and most deadly aerial predator the world has ever seen. They attacked and ate Moa and probably made fair game of the first humans. The Weta which predates dinosaurs still exist to this day. The Giant Weta is the heaviest insect in the world. The Tuatara is still found in New Zealand. They are a unique species of reptile and the only existent species of its order remaining.
New Zealand is also one of the world's hot spots for flora. Forests usually contain a myriad of fern species from ground ferns to the highest fern tree in the world, the Black Fern. The most distant Palm tree from the tropics is the Nikau Palm of New Zealand which grows as far south as the 43° latitude. The Giant Kauri in the north has more volume of wood than any tree in the world.
New Zealand was the last landmass to be discovered with humans occupation taking place somewhere between 950 and 1130 AD. Polynesians were the first to settle. They were known for their navigational skills with their migration to New Zealand being recognised as one of the greatest maritime feats in human history. These Polynesians named the islands of New Zealand, 'Aotearoa', which means 'land of the long white cloud'..
The Dutch were the first known Europeans to visit New Zealand. Abel Janszoon Tasman sighted New Zealand in 1633. In 1642, Tasman tried to discover an imaginary southern continent that was thought to stretch across the South Pacific. They eventually discovered the western coastline of Australia and part of the north and southern coasts too. So they were unaware how far this continent extended. Upon reaching the east coast, the next discovery was the coast of New Zealand. Tasman described it as a "large land, uplifted high". He named it 'Staten Landt'.
How New Zealand got its name is not known. The name can be traced back as far as Captain Willem Jansz, a Dutch navigator who in 1620, sailed the south seas in search of gold and other riches. During his voyage, he observed an island off the coast of New Guinea, which he named 'Nieu Zelandt'. Maps as early as 1645 have the name 'Zeelandia Nova' ('new sea land' in Dutch). It is thought that the title might have been given to New Zealand because it also was a new land surrounded by sea.
Some historians think the land was named after the Dutch province of Zeelandt which was separated by sea from Hollandia. Likewise, Australia was called Hollandia Nova (New Holland) and across the sea was Zeelandia Nova (New Zeeland). Other historians suggest that New Zealand was named after The Zeeland Chamber an important chamber of the Dutch East India Company.