First People of New Zealand: Models, Impact and Late Arrival

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The history of human habitation in New Zealand is also relatively short. New Zealand was pretty much last place inhabited by people today to be inhabited. The first human inhabitants of New Zealand are believed to have been Polynesians who arrived from either Tahiti or the Cook Islands sometime between A.D. 800 and 1000.

According to Archaeology magazine: People have been in New Zealand for less time than they have any other large landmass on the globe except for Antarctica, making the islands' history the briefest of stints in the long human record. But reminders of the richness of that short span are everywhere.

The early inhabitants of New Zealand are believed to have migrated from Polynesian islands in three separate waves between ad 950 and 1350. Archaeological evidence indicates that New Zealand was initially populated by fishing and hunting people of East Polynesian ancestry. Known to some scholars as the Moa-hunters, they may have merged with later waves of Polynesians who, according to Maori tradition, arrived between 952 and 1150.

Janet M. Wilmshurst Atholl J. Anderson, Thomas F. G. Higham, and Trevor H. Worthy wrote in PNAS: The last major prehistoric human migration into a previously unoccupied region of the world was from the western archipelagos of Remote Oceania (Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa region) into the islands of East Polynesia. However, the chronological sequence of the prehistoric colonization of East Polynesia remains controversial, with one model suggesting dispersal from West Polynesia as early as 200 B.C. after a pause of ≈500–1,000 years and another suggesting it began ≈ A.D. 800 after a delay of several thousand years. These divergent chronologies and their related models of ecological and anthropological change result directly from various interpretations of conflicting radiocarbon dates on the earliest-dated archaeological sites, deforestation, Pacific rat introduction, and faunal extinctions from East Polynesia and have created many hotly debated “long” and “short” settlement chronologies.[Source: Janet M. Wilmshurst Atholl J. Anderson, Thomas F. G. Higham, and Trevor H. Worthy, PNAS, June 3, 2008]

Long and Short Models of New Zealand Human Colonization

Janet M. Wilmshurst Atholl J. Anderson, Thomas F. G. Higham, and Trevor H. Worthy wrote in PNAS: The first long-accepted colonization model for New Zealand was the “orthodox” archaeological model, which set the date for initial colonization to ≈ A.D., 800 several centuries before the earliest-dated archaeological sites. It assumed a small founding population (≈10–20 individuals) with a low population growth rate (less than1 percent) that remained archaeologically invisible for several centuries. Later, a “short” chronology was fitted to the orthodox model by a reassessment of all archaeological radiocarbon dates from New Zealand using strict criteria of acceptance, which put initial colonization in the A.D. 12th century, a conclusion also supported by many dated deforestation records. [Source: Janet M. Wilmshurst Atholl J. Anderson, Thomas F. G. Higham, and Trevor H. Worthy, PNAS, June 3, 2008]

The short model argued that the earliest archaeological sites represent those from the initial colonization phase. The most securely dated and oldest archaeological site in New Zealand (Wairau Bar, South Island) containing the widest range and types of materials belonging to Archaic East Polynesian culture dated from A.D. 1285 to 1300 (based on calibrated AMS dates on moa eggshell in human burial contexts) supports the short prehistory model, albeit a century later. Analyses of mtDNA variability within indigenous New Zealand Maori are also more consistent with a larger founding population (≈100–200 individuals) arriving late, rather than a small founding population arriving earlier.

The short model is challenged by a “long” prehistory model that proposes initial human colonization began A.D. 0–500, at the same time as or soon after the earliest evidence for colonization in East Polynesia. This long model persists despite increasingly younger settlement dates now emerging from East Polynesian islands. The long model assumed a small founding population (less than50 individuals) with slow growth rates (1 percent per year) that would have remained archaeologically invisible for more than1,000 years until the A.D. 13th century. There is no direct archaeological evidence to support this model, which assumes that any early settlements have long been destroyed. Instead, it relies on minor short-term forest disturbances that occur well before deforestation began in the A.D. 13th century as evidence for initial human presence. However, these disturbances are common throughout the Holocene in many New Zealand pollen records and have more convincing natural explanations.

In 1996, the first series of AMS radiocarbon dates (hereafter “dates”), the oldest ≈200 B.C., were reported on bones of the introduced Pacific rat excavated from extinct laughing owl (S. albifacies) sites in New Zealand. They were used to argue that the Pacific rat was introduced by an archaeologically invisible, transient human contact more than1,100 years before the earliest-dated archaeological and palaeoecological evidence for human presence ≈A.D. 1280 The dates were also used to propose circumstantially that there was an earlier wave of rat-induced faunal extinctions before permanent settlement. The rat dates have also been used as key evidence to support the long prehistory model. More controversially, because recent revisions of East Polynesian colonization now suggest later settlement at ≈A.D. 800, the rat bone dates imply a discovery of New Zealand from western Pacific archipelagos long before East Polynesia was even colonized. This then suggests that the current indigenous people of New Zealand (Maori and Moriori) were neither of East Polynesian origin nor the first discoverers. However, this is inconsistent with analyses of New Zealand Pacific rat and Maori mtDNA.

Octopus, a Bloody, Magic Fish Hook and Stories About the Discovery of New Zealand

An ancient Tahitian navigator named Kupe is said to have arrived in New Zealand at present-day Te Whiti-anga-a-Kupe (meaning "Crossing Place of Kupe") on Coromandel Peninsula in the 10th century, 400 years before the Maoris and 800 years before Captain James Cook. Kupe's wife reportedly named the land Aotearoa ( "Land of the Long White Cloud").

There is a very old Polynesian story about how an octopus led Kupe to New Zealand. William R. Curtsinger wrote in National Geographic: Surfing shoreward on long Pacific rollers, the sea rover Kupe and his followers behold the mountainous coast of North Island, New Zealand. Their 2,400-mile voyage began in pursuit of a thieving octopus, tradition tells, and ended with the discovery of Polynesia's largest landmass. The octopus stole Kupe's bait while the islander was fishing near his Raiatea home. Kupe became so enraged that he set out in pursuit of the beast, which fled all the way to New Zealand. Kupe finally slew the monster in Cook Strait and returned to Raiatea to tell the people about the great island he had found. Others retraced his route, "to the left of the setting sun in November," and colonized the new land. [Source: William R. Curtsinger, National Geographic, December 1974]

On another story about the discovery of New Zealand, Peter Oettli wrote in “CultureShock! New Zealand”: “Many hundreds of years ago, the Maori say, a young man called Maui went fishing with his four older brothers. Somehow he managed to persuade them to go much further south than usual and finally chose a spot where they would lower their hooks. He had a fishing line, but neither hook nor bait, and his brothers refused to let him have any, so he used the jawbone of his grandmother, Murirangawhenua, as a hook and baited it with blood obtained by punching his own nose. The magic hook and the irresistible bait worked wonders. Maui landed an enormous fish; the North Island of New Zealand — known in the Maori language as Te Ika a Maui — ‘the Fish of Maui’. [Source: Peter Oettli, “CultureShock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette: New Zealand”, Marshall Cavendish International, 2009]

The myth tells us that Maui returned to his homeland, the mythical Hawaiki, and gave his people directions to find what he called Tiritiri o te Moana — the Gift of the Sea. The first navigator to come to New Zealand named in Maori tradition was Kupe. He explored the coast of the North Island and was the first to sail through the strait that divides the two main islands. According to some traditions, Kupe also went to the South Island. He left New Zealand from a harbour on the west coast in the north of the North Islands which was named Hokianga nui a Kupe — the Great Returning Place of Kupe. This name shows up maps today in the abbreviated form — Hokianga.

Rats and the Suggestion Arrived in New Zealand 2,000 Years Ago?

Nigel Prickett of the Auckland Museum and avian paleontologist Richard Holdaway have devoted much attention to answering two of New Zealand’s most sensitive archaeological questions. When did settlers ancestral to today's Maori arrive in New Zealand, and were they the first to introduce rats to its islands? Or were rats, which are not native to New Zealand, already there, left behind by earlier voyagers who are not yet visible in the archaeological record? [Source: Eric A. Powell, Archaeology magazine, Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003

Eric A. Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine: The Pacific rat (Rattus exulans), called kiore in Maori, is considered proxy evidence for human settlement throughout the Pacific. Rats are not native to Polynesia and they cannot swim, so they must have been transported from island to island as stowaways or as food on the great canoes the Polynesians piloted across the ocean. In 1996, biologist and avian paleontologist Richard Holdaway published a paper that presented radiocarbon dates on rat bones from nonarchaeological sites in New Zealand. The bones came from deposits that were created by birds, most likely owls. Holdaway's dates showed rats in the New Zealand archipelago nearly 2,000 years ago, implying humans had visited New Zealand at the same time. His data was criticized on several fronts. Objections were raised concerning the poor preservation of the rat bones, and critics pointed out that rat diet and the contamination of the bone by ancient carbon could have thrown off the dates.

Holdaway makes no claims for permanent early settlement, concluding that the rats were left behind by explorers who either failed or did not attempt colonization. He points out that had early explorers stayed for any significant period of time, they would have devastated the local fauna, particularly the flightless moa, an event that surely would have shown up in the archaeological record. He thinks the people who introduced the kiore stayed only a few years at most.

Janet M. Wilmshurst Atholl J. Anderson, Thomas F. G. Higham, and Trevor H. Worthy wrote in PNAS: we provide a reliable approach for accurately dating initial human colonization on Pacific islands by radiocarbon dating the arrival of the Pacific rat. Radiocarbon dates on distinctive rat-gnawed seeds and rat bones show that the Pacific rat was introduced to both main islands of New Zealand ≈A.D. 1280, a millennium later than previously assumed. This matches with the earliest-dated archaeological sites, human-induced faunal extinctions, and deforestation, implying there was no long period of invisibility in either the archaeological or palaeoecological records. [Source: Janet M. Wilmshurst Atholl J. Anderson, Thomas F. G. Higham, and Trevor H. Worthy, PNAS, June 3, 2008]

Ancient Polynesians Who Colonized New Zealand

Sometimes referred to as "Vikings of the Sunrise," the ancient Polynesians who first colonized New Zealand landed on almost every habitable island in the South Pacific before A.D. 1000 and navigated an area between Southeast Asia in the west, Hawaii in the north, Easter Island to the east and New Zealand to the south. Their navigational feats far excelled those of Christopher Columbus.

The first Polynesians are believed to have arrived in the South Pacific from Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu about 4,000 years ago. They lived by fishing and cultivating root and tree crops such as breadfruit, taro and yams, and were known for their elaborate system of navigation.

Some of the archaeological evidence that suggests a Polynesian origin of the first New Zealander is the discovery of a Tahitian style war club. It is older than the similar patu of the New Zealand Maori, indicating a voyaging tie from the Society Islands to New Zealand. [Source: Wikipedia]

Polynesians, Outrigger Canoes and Navigation

Polynesians used simple dugout canoes to get around protected waters in the lagoons that surrounded their home islands and canoes with a single outrigger to navigate the open ocean. Small outrigger canoes were made from a single breadfruit tree trunk hollowed and carved with simple hand tools. Large canoes, sometimes over a 100 feet long, were constructed of planks tied together with coconut-fibre rope. Larger and faster than the ships used by European explorers, these canoes carried up to a hundred men and supplies to keep them going for months at sea.

Without compasses and maps, Polynesians navigated their way across thousands of miles of open ocean, where they relied primarily on celestial navigation. Since they traveled mainly in east-west lines, they set their course based on the position of the sun and the rising and setting positions of certain stars which were associated with specific islands. To head north and south they followed the North Star and the Southern Cross. Knowledge of directions, and important stars and island positions were passed from generation to generation in the form of chants.

Polynesians also navigated using knowledge of winds and waves patterns and currents caused by the deflection and movement of ocean water around islands. Distant atolls, for example, could be located because they broke up the large swells that move east to west across the Pacific Ocean.

Land was located by watching the birds (who usually returned to their island nests at night) and cloud patterns. Single stationary clouds, for example, usually formed around large islands. In some cases, pale green light that reflected from an atoll's shallow lagoon could be seen on the underside of clouds.

Ecological Impact of the First People on New Zealand

The colonization of New Zealand triggered a devastating transformation, also in a relatively short period of time. There was widespread deforestation. Overhunting contributed to widespread faunal extinctions and the decline of marine megafauna, fires destroyed lowland forests. The introduction of the , Pacific rat is believed have led to the extinction of bird and reptile species. [Source: Janet M. Wilmshurst Atholl J. Anderson, Thomas F. G. Higham, and Trevor H. Worthy, PNAS, June 3, 2008

Because New Zealand was isolated from the rest of the world for some 80 million year, much of its indigenous flora and fauna evolved independently and became unique. Native insects, spiders, snails, earthworms, reptiles and many freshwater fish, plants and birds are found nowhere else in the world. As many as 80,000 species of native animals, fungi and plants are believed to live in New Zealand. Only about 30,000 have been described and named.

The first people to arrive on New Zealand found no large mammals: no deer, no antelope, no bears, or large cats or even kangaroos like in Australia. The only mammals were two species of small bat and the only predators were falcons, hawks, eagles and other meat-eating birds.

When humans arrived in New Zealand from Polynesia over 1,000 years ago they and the animals they brought with them, namely dogs and rats, were responsible for exterminating many of New Zealand indigenous animals, including moas and at least 18 other species of bird including the flightless New Zealand goose, the Fjordland crested penguin, the giant rail (more than a meter tall) as well as several species of lizards and insects. The devastating ecological consequences of human arrival are well documented on many East Polynesian islands and show striking similarities in terms of deforestation and faunal extinctions or declines.

Kate Evans wrote in Eos Science News: There are discrepancies between Antarctic Peninsula ice core tells about burning in New Zealand and that preserved in the charcoal records found in lake sediments across New Zealand. Both show a sharp increase in fire around 1300, but the ice core shows soot levels peaking in the 16th and 17th centuries, whereas the lake sediments show burning falling away, then rising to a new peak around 1840, coinciding with mass European immigration and land clearing. [Source: Kate Evans, Eos Science News, American Geophysical Union, October 26, 2021

For Joe McConnell from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nev., that divergence simply shows local, catchment-level paleofire records aren’t particularly accurate when scaled up—but Winton wondered whether there’s something else going on as well. “The New Zealand local fire record and the Antarctic black carbon record look quite different around the 16th and 17th centuries after the 13th century initial rise. To me that raises exciting questions about other factors that could regulate the ice core signal, such as changes in atmospheric processes or shifts in climate oscillations. What about changes in the hydrological cycle?” Chemical analysis of biomarkers in the soot in these and other ice cores could provide more clarity about what kind of vegetation was burned, she said, and perhaps help to resolve the puzzle. “It would be really interesting to further explore what was going on during that time period.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New Zealand Tourism Board, Archaeology magazine, PNAS, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Reuters, Associated Press, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

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