By Veronika Meduna
On archaeological grounds it’s very hard to say that this was a normal process of colonisation – that’s if you think of normal being that somebody goes out and explores, finds something, comes back and tells people, and then a large number of people decide to move to that place.
The story of New Zealand's first colonisation is one of double-hulled canoes making return trips between Polynesia and the newly discovered Aotearoa, but new evidence about climate conditions at the time challenges this narrative, suggesting instead that the first people to make landfall in New Zealand were exiles escaping from conflict in their homelands.
Atholl Anderson is an archaeologist at the Australian National University, with a special interest in ocean navigation, maritime technology and the settlement of islands. Over the past few years, his focus has been on producing a comprehensive history of humanity’s last great migration across the Pacific Ocean and, ultimately, the settlement of New Zealand.
In the book chapters dealing with Polynesian origins and their migration path across the Pacific, he draws on the latest findings in genetics, linguistics and archaeology, as well as his own recent collaboration with palaeo-climate scientists, to conclude that the first colonists may not have arrived in New Zealand as a result of deliberate exploration, but were more likely fleeing from their homelands during a period of conflict.
From the linguistics and the nature of Maori cultural life – by that I mean things like social organisation, economic customs, or the ways in which people hunted and fished and planted – we can say that they certainly came from central eastern Polynesia.
“Whether that was Tahiti, the Cook islands or the austral islands is very hard to say, and indeed it might be all three of them because the genetic evidence we had recently of the genetic variety within the Maori population suggests that it was a fairly large colonising population … several hundred each of males and females, which in turn implies a number of canoes, very probably more than the traditional seven, and therefore they may have come from different islands."
He says there is no evidence that there was a period of exploration preceding the colonisation. If it had, archaeologist could expect to find traces left behind by people who returned to East Polynesia.
The evidence is of a relatively large population reaching New Zealand and not going back.
Atholl Anderson says that archaeology, genetics and linguistics have combined to map a more detailed route across the Pacific, beginning with the earliest Polynesian ancestors leaving south China about 5000 years ago. They spoke an Austronesian language, and traveled via Taiwan and Indonesia.
"We’re seeing the funneling of people and commodities, commensal and domestic plants and animals, from a wider catchment in south-east Asia, which includes Taiwan, but then they funnel down into an area along the islands to the north of New Guinea, and out down through the big islands east of New Guinea - the Solomons, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa – and it’s in those latter islands where we find the actual origins of Polynesian culture."
The next leg of the voyage took people into central East Polynesia, and then from there to the margins - the Polynesian triangle of Hawaii, Rapanui/Easter Island and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Atholl Anderson says it is this last part of the journey that was marked by growing conflict.
Traditional stories tell of a time of strive, on inter-lineage dispute, raiding of gardens and disagreements over access to resources ... and as a result of that period of skirmishing and warfare, some groups ... were effectively compelled to leave. There’s nothing in the traditions that says that they were told to go anywhere, it just says that they left.
The only way to leave was to go to sea, and this is where Atholl Anderson’s most recent work on the ocean climate conditions at the time of settlement adds a new element to the story. By analysing the ocean temperature record, he and his collaborators found that there was a period, corresponding with the time of colonisation, when high-pressure systems built up slightly to the east of New Zealand and brought winds that blew from north or north-east, acting “almost like a conveyor belt from the Cook Islands or Tahiti for a down-wind vessel”.
Then the wind patterns reversed back to persistent westerlies. His argument is that the maritime technology available to Polynesians at the time – during the 13th and 14th centuries – was limited to the double spritsail, a V-shaped sail with spars on each side, which can only sail with the wind. This is the only sail recorded in New Zealand before the 18th century.
Do these new findings take anything away from the idea that early Polynesian explorers were exceptionally skilled navigators?
“Not at all,” says Atholl Anderson.
“They had very good navigational skills, not any better than anybody else but certainly as good as anybody else. They were able to tell which latitude they were by using zenith stars and they could work out longitude by dead reckoning, that is to say by estimating their speed and direction where they were going.
“But it doesn’t take anything away from the sheer adventurousness and courage that was involved. If anything it adds to it because these people knew the limitations of their own craft. It took not just organisation and navigational ability, but a huge amount of courage, albeit under duress, probably.”
Here you can listen to a longer interview with Atholl Anderson, discussing the climate conditions and socio-political circumstances at the time of New Zealand's first colonisation.
Science Book Prize
Tangata Whenua is the winner of the 2015 Royal Society of New Zealand’s Science Book Prize. This is what the judges had to say about each of the five finalists:
Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History by Atholl Anderson FRSNZ, Judith Binney, Aroha Harris (Bridget Williams Books).
Tangata Whenua is a beautifully produced, well illustrated and comprehensive record of the tangata whenua. Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris present archaeological and genetic evidence alongside history, traditional narratives and oral sources to produce this powerful story – both scholarly and readable – of Maori people and the land they live in.
Gathering Evidence by Caoilinn Hughes (Victoria University Press)
From Johannes Kepler to Marie Curie, and from genetics to nuclear physics: in this book, which is rich with scientific themes, scientific words and phrases become poetry. Caoilinn Hughes gives readers new and unexpected perspectives on science in her lively and powerful poems that explore and communicate science with an emotional intensity that makes for a memorable read.
The Wandering Mind by Michael Corballis FRSNZ (Auckland University Press)
Neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology are helping scientists to learn more about our brains. In this scientifically rigorous and quietly humorous book, Michael Corballis, one of the leaders in this field, explores what happens in our brains and to our minds when we are not paying attention. He takes us on a meandering and enlightening exploration of our wandering minds.
Dolphins of Aotearoa: Living with New Zealand Dolphins by Raewyn Peart (Craig Potton Publishing)
New Zealand’s five resident dolphin species are among the most-loved and cherished of our native fauna. In this beautifully produced book, Raewyn Peart goes beyond the traditional illustrated natural history book to tell a scientifically-grounded, moving and engaging story of the relationship between humans and dolphins in New Zealand.
Manuka: the Biography of an Extraordinary Honey by Cliff Van Eaton (Exisle Publishing)
Manuka honey is a uniquely New Zealand product, valued here and internationally for its rich taste and therapeutic properties. In this delightful and surprising book Cliff Van Eaton tells the captivating story of the science behind the discovery of the antibiotic effects of manuka honey, with a focus on the scientists and beekeepers who have brought this product to the world.