This paper reports on the effects of large earthquakes and related events, such as tsunamis, on prehistoric coastal settlements in New Zealand. It is based on field observations at several well-established archaeological sites around the Cook Strait region and on literature reviews. We identify three broad periods of seismic activity in New Zealand since human occupation of the islands: 13th century, 15th century, and the 1750s to 1850s. The most significant, from a prehistoric human perspective, is the 15th century. Using examples from the Cook Strait region, we suggest that the abandonment of coastal settlements, the movement of people from the coast to inland areas, and a shift in settlement location from sheltered coastal bays to exposed headlands, was due to seismic activity, including tsunamis. We expect similar patterns to have occurred in other parts of New Zealand, and other coastal areas of the world with longer occupation histories. © 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.