Tech Week: Time to celebrate Aotearoa’s own overlooked moonshot

by Peter Griffin / 25 May, 2019
The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand

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

Two significant celebrations of human endeavour are looming – the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing on July 20 and the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival in New Zealand on October 6.

But for Māori business leader and tech entrepreneur, Ian Taylor, both commemorations are instead an opportunity to turn the spotlight on Aotearoa’s own overlooked moonshot – the epic voyages Māori people took to reach our shores.

It is a story that for much of the 20th century was largely ignored, says Taylor, who says he learned more at school in the 1950s and 60s about the adventures of Genghis Khan and the Romans, than the Polynesian mariners and navigators who guided his ancestors to our shores.

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“We have had 250 years of history where these stories have been denied, not just to Māori and Pasifika, but everyone… it has to stop this year,” said Taylor during a Tech Week webcast on Thursday.

“We bow down to this idea of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos going to Mars, when here in our own country, we had the equivalent,” he added.

Born in 1950, Taylor says the common perception of how Polynesians came to New Zealand could be summarised by the classic 1898 Louis John Steele and Charles Goldie oil painting, The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand. It depicts a miraculous survival at sea, starving voyagers sighting landfall just in the nick of time. The painting and patronising history books have helped perpetuate the myth that the voyagers discovered Aotearoa by chance, says Taylor.

“A very famous sailor, who shall remain nameless, once said to me that I should get over this idea that my ancestors came here as a voyage of discovery,” he says.

“What happened was they went out, probably had too much kava, went fishing, fell asleep, woke up, didn’t know where they were and got blown here,” the famous sailor apparently told Taylor.

Archaeological and DNA evidence gathered over the decades has helped paint a fuller picture of migration through the Pacific, which culminated in the arrival of Māori in Aotearoa, sometime in the late 13th or early 14th century.

Prof. Lisa Matisso-Smith.

“This wasn’t just chance, people hoping to find land,” says Professor Lisa Matisso-Smith, the Hawaiian-born University of Otago molecular anthropologist who appeared with Taylor on the Tech Week webcast.

“There was a real strategy about the exploration of that vast ocean that lay in front of them and an awareness of the seas and the currents and the seasonality.”

Inspired by renowned New Zealand scientist Allan Wilson, who examined mitochondrial DNA to map the African origin of the human species, Matisoo-Smith applied the same approach to one of the Polynesian voyagers’ constant companions – the kiore, or Pacific rat.

“It was one of these animals that was part of that Pacific system of settlement. People were taking plants and animals with them in their waka,” says Matisoo-Smith.

DNA extracted from rat bones recovered on numerous islands of the Pacific had allowed researchers to reconstruct the order of voyages east into the South Pacific, as early settlers ventured out of the Bismarck Archipelago to Samoa and Tonga, Hawaii and later, Aotearoa.

“It was the last major migration of humans,” says Matisoo-Smith.

“With all the other migrations, people could walk, but in order to get out through the islands of Southeast Asia and into the islands of the Pacific, required technology.”

Hundreds of years of developing navigational techniques, boat design and applying knowledge of the environment, all of it passed on through the oral tradition, and enabled even the most remote Pacific islands to be reached.

“They had the stars, they knew the rising and setting stars, the navigators passed this information down,” says Matisoo-Smith.

“They knew what the signs were of migrating birds, they knew what birds were found at what distances from land.”

Crucially, it wasn’t a one-way migration. There was movement back and forth between island archipelagos, where “trade and exchange” networks were established. Aotearoa was an unknown quantity at the time, but Polynesians knew how to plan for long voyages.

“In order to get out to remote Oceania, to settle these islands, required a different type of technology and a different kind of mindset,” says Matisoo-Smith, who has also undertaken DNA analysis of Māori buried at the Wairau Bar, one of the earliest known areas of settlement in Aotearoa. That analysis revealed significant genetic variation among those buried, negating the “single canoe” perception of settlement that dominated for years.

Ian Taylor and Lisa Matisso-Smith discuss the significance and technology of the voyages Māori people took to reach New Zealand.

Ian Taylor and Lisa Matisso-Smith discuss the significance and technology of the voyages Māori people took to reach New Zealand.

Taylor, whose Dunedin-based company Animation Research develops cutting-edge animation and visualisation for international sports events such as the Volvo ocean yacht race, was planning to bring a technological edge to the Tuia 250 commemorations, which will involve Tahitian traditional double-hulled canoes voyaging south to join a flotilla that will visit some of the spots Captain Cook landed at.

“We’ve nicked and begged and stolen equipment off Volvo boats and we are going to put it on the waka that are leaving Tahiti,” says Taylor.

That would allow the exact path of the canoe voyages to be mapped and visualised, just as Animation Research had plotted the courses of yachts on America’s Cup courses. He planned to also put the equipment on the replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour, which will also join the Tuia 250 voyage around New Zealand.

“We are still trying to figure out how we pay for it and the boats leave in August,” he told Tech Week TV viewers.

The point of it all, says Taylor, is to make Tuia 250 more than just “a few parties on a few beaches”, to bring it home to young Māori and Pacific Islanders that their ancestors were skilled innovators employing the best technology available and that they too can be pioneers in their field.

“A lot of Māori look at this celebration or commemoration of Cook arriving here as being wrong,” he says.

“But this is the time to start uncovering the stories that Captain Cook and Europeans totally missed.”

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