Food and mana provide a far more plausible explanation than fear of strangers for the first white-Maori contact ending in bloodshed, an archaeologist claims.

Three of Abel Tasman's crew were killed by Maori when the Dutch explorer sent two small boats ashore in Golden Bay in December 1642.

The Maori story of the first contact has been lost because Ngati Tumatakokiri, the iwi in the skirmish, was destroyed by invading tribes before the 20th century.

Otago University's Dr Ian Barber said historians had guessed the attack occurred because the white sailors were strangers - and thus enemies.

But he believes the European explorers anchored in an area of kumara cultivation during the growing season, and their presence was seen as a threat to supplies.

Dr Barber examined materials and survey evidence showing that the area was important for food, with sustained gardening and large underground storage pits.

"The Dutch ships made a beeline for what was essentially the food basket of Golden Bay before they were attacked.

"After the Dutch anchored and sent two small boats inshore to explore the coastline, local people may well have seen Tasman and his potentially hungry crew as a threat to their food resources."

Local gardens were also probably considered tapu, consistent with Maori custom.

"People would have been concerned for the impact of these visitors on their crops. Food, and the storage of food, was associated with community well-being as well as chiefly mana, power and politics. Everyone in the community had a vested interest."

Despite his findings there are still facts that tantalise, Dr Barber says.

"The most important thing is that they [Tasman's crew] were not even allowed to land."