Why the Wairau Bar is so important

by Sally Blundell / 24 June, 2016
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

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

RelatedArticlesModule - Wairau Bar

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.

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

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.


Get the Listener delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now


Latest

If I were a rich man: A grammarian on the nettlesome subjunctive
98551 2018-11-19 00:00:00Z Diversions

If I were a rich man: A grammarian on the nettleso…

by Ray Prebble

Many people find themselves using one or other of these subjunctive forms without really knowing why.

Read more
As China shuts its gates to our plastics and paper, how can NZ stem the tide?
99059 2018-11-19 00:00:00Z Planet

As China shuts its gates to our plastics and paper…

by Veronika Meduna

Unless we get serious about recycling, there’ll be a tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in the ocean by 2025.

Read more
Heights of contradiction: American and Israeli Jews' complicated relationship
99055 2018-11-18 00:00:00Z World

Heights of contradiction: American and Israeli Jew…

by Todd Pitock

Todd Pitock's travels through Israel reveal the true differences between American and Israeli Jews.

Read more
The Democrat's midterm wins spell the end of Trump's dream run
99105 2018-11-18 00:00:00Z World

The Democrat's midterm wins spell the end of Trump…

by Paul Thomas

Far from being Trump’s near-“complete victory”, the midterms mean opportunities for rigging electoral boundaries have swung back towards the Dems.

Read more
Sally Rooney's Normal People has the makings of a classic
99094 2018-11-18 00:00:00Z Books

Sally Rooney's Normal People has the makings of a …

by Kiran Dass

Normal People is sharply observed portrait of an on-off romance and a book you need to read.

Read more
Why you should avoid 'eating for two' during pregnancy
98747 2018-11-18 00:00:00Z Health

Why you should avoid 'eating for two' during pregn…

by Ruth Nichol

Doubling down on food during pregnancy is out, unless it’s diet quality we’re talking about.

Read more
The long, slow goodbye to Angela Merkel
99173 2018-11-17 00:00:00Z World

The long, slow goodbye to Angela Merkel

by Cathrin Schaer

German Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to leave the job in 2021, but that’s not soon enough for some.

Read more
Silent witness: The forgotten NZ movie star
97576 2018-11-17 00:00:00Z Movies

Silent witness: The forgotten NZ movie star

by Paul Little

One of the earliest and possibly least known NZ movie stars is Eve Balfour, a silent-movie actress, born in Christchurch in 1890.

Read more