Dating the First New Zealanders: The Chronology of Wairau Bar

By Higham, Thomas; Anderson, Atholl et al. | Antiquity, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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Dating the First New Zealanders: The Chronology of Wairau Bar


Higham, Thomas, Anderson, Atholl, Jacomb, Chris, Antiquity


New Zealand was the last major landmass to be settled before the industrial age, but vigorous debate has ensued over the precise date of first colonization (Sutton 1987; 1994; Anderson 1991; 1994). Orthodox propositions based largely upon the comparison of material culture types between New Zealand and tropical East Polynesia took the earliest dates with which such assemblages have been associated to suggest colonization around 800 AD (Davidson 1984). However, when Kirch (1986) argued that typological and palaeoenvironmental evidence indicated settlement of tropical Polynesia as early as 2000 years ago, Sutton (1987) followed suit for New Zealand by suggesting that the presence of charcoal in selected natural sites might reflect colonization between 0 and 500 AD. His use of evidence has been criticized (Grant 1988; Enright & Osborne 1988; Wilmshurst 1997). The palaeoenvironmental approach in Polynesian prehistory has been the subject of subsequent dispute (Spriggs & Anderson 1991; Kirch & Ellison 1994; Anderson 1994; 1995). Similarly contested are radiocarbon dates of up to about 2000 BP on gelatin from the bones of Rattus exulans, a species introduced prehistorically to New Zealand (Anderson 1996; Holdaway 1996).

Less contentious evidence arises from radiocarbon ages on materials recovered from archaeological sites. Analyses of radiocarbon determinations from excavated New Zealand archaeological sites has suggested a more recent age for Polynesian colonization closer to the 12th and 13th centuries (Anderson 1991; McFadgen et al. 1994; Higham & Hogg 1997).

One archaeological site of great importance has been absent from these analyses so far. This is Wairau Bar, located in the north of the South Island [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. It was found by Eyles in the 1930s and later excavated by Duff (1950; 1977), Wilkes (1964) and Trotter (1975a) amongst others [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. The abundance, range and quality of material culture, especially of adzes and ornaments, produced by these investigations are unparalleled in New Zealand or elsewhere in East Polynesia. The Wairau Bar material effectively constitutes the type assemblage of the New Zealand Archaic Phase of East Polynesian Culture (Golson 1959). As such, there are close similarities with artefacts from the Cook, Society and Marquesas Islands, and elsewhere in New Zealand. Since Archaic East Polynesian Culture is held to represent the colonising population of the region (leaving aside Kirch's (1986) objections in relation to Hawaii especially), an understanding of the archaeology of Wairau Bar, and especially its chronology, is clearly crucial to defining the age and character of the prehistoric settlement of New Zealand.

Until now, there has been no reliable chronology for the site. We present a new series of radiocarbon determinations from material excavated previously from the site and outline some implications of the results for understanding the chronology of New Zealand.

Archaeological investigations

Wairau Bar is situated on a boulder bank at the mouth of the Wairau and Opawa Rivers [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Three discrete urupa (burial areas) and associated occupation areas have been located by archaeologists. In the northwestern area, [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] burials 1-7 disclosed a variety of funerary items including complete moa eggs, imitation sperm-whale tooth pendants, necklaces of whale ivory 'reels', adzes of characteristic early East Polynesian types rendered in local and imported New Zealand stone and joints of moa (Duff 1977). A second urupa contained four more burials (8-11) with fewer burial goods. They were trussed and appeared to have been disturbed post-depositionally (Duff 1977: 49). The third or southern urupa comprised the bulk of the interments and contained individuals with fewer mortuary items.

Duff's (1950) analysis of the skeletal remains and their burial goods suggested that a higher proportion of males were interred with grave items compared to females.

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