The word pā can refer to any Māori village or defensive settlement, but often refers to hill forts – fortified settlements with palisades and defensive terraces – and also to fortified villages. Pā are mainly in the North Island of New Zealand, north of Lake Taupo. Over 5000 sites have been located, photographed and examined although few have been subject to detailed analysis. No pā have been yet located from the early colonization period when early Polynesian-Māori colonizers lived in the lower South Island. Variations similar to pā are found throughout central Polynesia, in the islands of Fiji, Tonga and the Marquesas Islands.
In Māori culture, a great pā represented the mana and strategic ability of an iwi, as personified by a rangatira. Pā are located in various defensible locations around the territory of an iwi to protect fertile plantation sites and food supplies.
Almost all pā are found on prominent raised ground, especially volcanic hills. The natural slope of the hill is then terraced. Dormant volcanoes were commonly used for pā in Auckland. Pā are multipurpose in function.