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Why the Wairau Bar is so important

The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand, by Louis J. Steele and Charles Goldie, was a romantic fabrication. Art/Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

Sally Blundell looks at the importance of the Wairau Bar, where the earliest evidence of Polynesian settlement is found.

Since local schoolboy Jim Eyles unearthed a small trove of Maori artefacts on his family’s Marlborough farm in 1939, the area at the mouth of the Wairau River has revealed itself to be one of the most important archaeological sites in the country. Subsequent diggings at Wairau Bar revealed hundreds of stone adzes and a range of personal ornaments interred, with other goods, in 40 burial sites. These artefacts came to define the Moa Hunter – later described as the Archaic – phase of New Zealand prehistory.
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In 2009, the kaitiaki organisation Te Runanga a Rangitane o Wairau arranged with Canterbury Museum to have the remains of 41 individuals relocated to Wairau Bar. This allowed the University of Otago’s Southern Pacific Archaeological Research (SPAR) team to undertake an excavation and analysis programme of the area.

SPAR’s work revealed a large working village, covering at least 11ha, dating back to the early 1300s. What’s more, analysis of skeletal remains and burial practices suggests a population who were not all raised in this country.

“We are convinced this was a site of the founding community that lived there in the early 1300s,” says archaeologist and SPAR co-director Richard Walter. “It has all the signatures of early Polynesian settlement that we expected.”

Photo/Quinn Berentson

Excavation of a further 40-50sq m last year corroborates findings that the population of this short-lived settlement (it lasted decades, not centuries) included those born in the Pacific. This brings the probable date of Polynesian landfall to the early 1300s, much later than previous suggestions of around 800. Further study of excavated material, including DNA analysis of moa eggshell, is expected to provide further insight into the diet, lifestyles and hunting practices of these earliest arrivals.

Walter does not want to be drawn on post-Maori, pre-Tasman European arrivals. Wairau Bar is a “purely Polynesian site,” he says, and data suggesting early ships from Portugal – or any other trading nation ploughing the equatorial Pacific waters – took a lengthy right-angle diversion south has yet to stand up to close scrutiny. “There is always the possibility, but the quality of data is low.”

This article was first published in the June 18, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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