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Shedding new light on New Zealand's first arrivals

Charles Goldie and Louis John Steele’s 1898 take on the arrival of the Maori. Photo/Auckland Art Gallery/Toi o Tamaki

Artefacts support the case for a planned settlement in New Zealand from East Polynesia.

The story of the colonisation of New Zealand has gone through several revisions. For years, we believed it began with the arrival of a Polynesian navigator, perhaps Kupe, around 800AD, quickly followed by the so-called Great Fleet. In the 1970s, we were given a new account – the story of a small number of colonists who left the tropical homeland of Hawaiki in one, or several, journeys, the first making landfall around 800AD, followed by a lengthy period of adaptation, cultural change and population growth. But there was a problem with both of these: none of the so-called “archaic” sites could be confidently dated back to anywhere near 800AD.

Was there a missing record, or was the story wrong? The answer may lie in remote Wairau Bar at the mouth of the Wairau River in Marlborough. There, over the past century, first fossickers then archaeologists have uncovered a range of artefacts, including stone adzes, ornaments, tools and mortuary items. Historic middens have revealed bones of extinct species of bird (including moa and Haast’s eagle), sea mammals, domestic dogs and fish. All point to the existence of a large village of around 500 people. Radiocarbon dating suggests the bulk of occupation began in the early 14th century, with a tail stretching back into the late 13th century.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Intriguingly, some of the artefacts have strong connections to tropical East Polynesia. A chisel has been found to have been made of shell found only in tropical waters. Elaborate mortuary items found in the oldest of 42 burial sites indicate high-ranking individuals and distinctly Polynesian funereal practices. Ongoing work by a team of researchers led by University of Otago archaeologist Richard Walter has reinforced this link. Analysis of bone and teeth samples from skeletal remains indicate an east Polynesian diet, suggesting early years spent in the homeland zone of Hawaiki. Working in collaboration with local iwi Rangitāne o Wairau, biological anthropologist Lisa Matisoo-Smith has completed the analysis of the mitochondrial DNA (which traces maternal lineages) in 12 Wairau Bar individuals. Her research shows an unexpected level of variation, indicating a large founding population coming from different villages, “if not different islands or different archipelagos”. 

These findings fit in with archaeological and linguistic evidence for a large, one-way migration out of tropical East Polynesia taking place in the early 1300s.

Wairau Bar was a cradle of colonisation.

“This is not to say no one visited New Zealand or lived here before the 14th century,” says Walter. “You can’t have a mass migration unless you had people here first. But if there were people here before 1300, they made no archaeological impact. After around 1300 is when the continuous archaeological record of New Zealand commences and it commences with a mass migration.”

Wairau Bar undoubtedly played a part, a very important part, argues Walter, in that early colonisation phase. If it was not the earliest occupation site in the country, it quickly became a large and central base for a huge amount of tool making, transport, trade and exchange – there were plenty of moa and sea mammals in the area, it had safe access for deepwater sailing craft and was only a few days’ travel to the important stone sources of Nelson and D’Urville Island. Its location on Cook Strait also provided access to the coastlines of both main islands. It was not occupied for long – research suggests it was used for only 20-30 years – but it does appear to have been a significant base for the exploration of New Zealand and the establishment of a network of communities in the early years of colonisation.

An approximation of a woman buried at Wairau Bar in the 1300s.

Such findings, says Walter, tie in with the oral tradition that says people came to New Zealand from tropical Polynesia over a period of time, that they went back and forth, maybe leaving people here in small groups, so there was a knowledge of New Zealand circulating in homelands well before mass migration. It also resurrects a version of the Great Fleet theory, brought forward about 400-500 years.

Why did they come? Such a trip would have been expensive, demanding extensive preparation and the resources of entire villages for a long period of time. Although scientists often cite demographic or environmental pressures to explain the mass movement of populations, a more satisfactory explanation, says Walter, is societal – breakaway groups driven by internal politics and led by strong religious, political and warrior leaders.

“The oral traditions of the canoe voyages all document precisely that kind of charismatic leadership driving decision-making in the homelands. It is plausible that [Wairau Bar] was occupied by at least some individuals who travelled on the first canoes out from Hawaiki, and the esteem in which these individuals were held is witnessed by the fact that they were buried with highly elaborate mortuary arrangements.”

Possible migration routes. Source: David Eccles

The story is far from complete but ongoing research, including Matisoo-Smith’s current work analysing the complete genomes of those once buried at Wairau Bar, is expected to shed more light on some of our earliest arrivals.

Update: An earlier version of this article misattributed the graphic titled "Possible migration routes". The correct attribution is to David Eccles.

This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.