Colonisation, Mobility and Exchange in New Zealand Prehistory

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New Zealand was settled during the last phase of the Austronesian expansion that commenced around 3300 BP, when Lapita peoples moved down the coasts of New Guinea and into the Oceanic world beyond. In Papua New Guinea and the northern Solomon Islands these new groups interacted with communities whose ancestors had crossed the Wallace Line into the Pleistocene landmass of Sahul some 37 000-47 000 years earlier. Beyond the Solomon Islands the vast seascape of the Pacific was uninhabited until the arrival of Lapita settlers, bringing with them new sailing and colonisation strategies. In Polynesia the Lapita descendants pushed further east settling virtually every Polynesian island and arriving in New Zealand as the final stage of this migration at the end of the thirteenth century AD (Walter & Jacomb 2007) (Figure 1). Once settled, New Zealand lost contact with the tropical homelands and its prehistory proceeded with virtually no further involvement with the rest of the Oceanic world.


Because of its isolation New Zealand prehistory has been largely conceived in its own terms (Walter 2004). Interest in wider Pacific connections has been restricted to questions of origins, and the timing and technology of discovery. In this paper we look at similarities in colonising and exchange behaviour between New Zealand Maori and Austronesian colonists elsewhere in Oceania, making particular use of obsidian as a marker. We document distinctive patterns in New Zealand archaeology that reflect continuity in traditions of colonisation, mobility and exchange that were introduced into the Pacific 3000 years earlier in western Melanesia. We summarise these patterns before turning to New Zealand.

Obsidian exchange and colonisation in western Melanesia

There are several high quality obsidian sources in the Bismarck Archipelago and elsewhere in eastern Papua New Guinea. Amongst these, the Talasea source of West New Britain was used during the Pleistocene and rapidly adopted by the new Austronesian settlers. The early Austronesian sites display a distinctive pattern of obsidian movement associated with colonisation. In the post-colonisation phases a new pattern of obsidian exchange emerges associated with the development of trade networks.

Archaeologists have noted an early pulse in the use of imported obsidians in Lapita and other Austronesian regions of western Melanesia. These early assemblages contain larger pieces than in later periods as measured by weight, thickness and length of flakes and cores. Additionally there is a relatively greater number of large cortical blocks. These factors suggest direct access to source supplies, rather than down-the-line exchange. In the south-east Solomon Islands three Lapita sites have well-described obsidian assemblages. Nanggu (SZ-8) is located on Nendo (Santa Cruz) and was occupied for about 100 years from around 3300 BP while Nenumbo (RF-2) and Ngamanie (RF-6) in the Reef Islands were occupied for shorter periods between 3145-2825 BP and 2800-2300 BP respectively (Jones et al. 2007; Green & Jones 2008). Sheppard (1993) assigns 97 per cent of the obsidian from the three sites (n = 987) to Talasea more than 2000km to the west. An estimate of the quantity of obsidian and the weight per cubic metre of sediment is shown in Table 1 and indicates a high initial density of obsidian followed by a decline through time, with an increase in the relative importance of chert sourced from about 100km distant (Sheppard 1993). The amount of obsidian transported from Talasea would have required multiple canoe loads and, since there are no known Lapita sites between the south-east Solomons and the source zone, this would have involved direct procurement (Sheppard 1993).

Austronesian settlers arrived in south coast Papua about 2000 BP and exploited obsidian from sources on Fergusson Island 350km to the east. …