“we saw no human beings nor any smoke rising; nor can the people here have any boats, since we did not see any signs of them”
Whilst Tasman may have seen no signs of people, they were there. The North and West coasts of the South Island had been occupied for a long time, and in many locations.
The Waitaha people had been there since at least the thirteenth century and were displaced by the Ngati Wairangi and others, who in turn were displaced in the mid sixteenth century by the Ngati Tumatakokiri; descendants of the Kurahaupo voyagers. In time the Ngati Tumatakokiri too fell to other invaders.
Archaeological evidence shows that the whole North facing coast was occupied with settlements in every significant bay and at every major river mouth.
From Tasman Bay and Golden Bay the Ngati Tumatakokiri expanded their influence and control down the West Coast, and inland up the principal rivers.
They controlled a huge area rich with important stone and food resources.
On the West Coast was the highly prized aromatic herb ‘kakara taramea’ which gave its name to the Karamea River, the settlement at the river mouth, and the whole Karamea Bight.
South of Cape Foulwind was Pahautane, origin of a particularly hard flint, and south of that was the settlement at the Hokitika River mouth where they found Pounamu; Greenstone. This beautiful and durable stone was admired above all others, and was traded the length and breadth of the country.
The Kawatiri river gave them access to Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa which were brimming with fish and waterfowl. The bluffs to the north of Lake Rotoiti gave them another source of Argillite, otherwise found on Rangitioto (D’Urville Island).
All the major rivers gave them access to the interior, and moa.
Archaeological excavations at Kawatiri (Westport) reveal occupation beginning in the early 14th century. Carbon dating of items from the site shows that it was in continuous, or near continuous occupation from that time on.
There were people at Kawatiri when Abel Tasman’s two ships sailed past.
The people living at Kawatiri were industrious, and either travelled great distances for resources, or traded widely, or both.
The settlement site was a lagoon just inside the Kawatiri (Buller) River mouth, which is now greatly reduced by silt build-up due to improvements to the river’s flow made to make Westport Harbour more accessible. The site was also much closer to the shoreline than at present due to sand accretion on the ocean beach over the intervening period.
The Ngati Tumatakokiri were living there when Abel Tasman passed by, and despite what he wrote, they did have boats. At that time all Maori had boats.
New Zealand was settled by people who came in boats from the central pacific. It was settled first around the coast, then up the rivers and only after that did some Maori become completely land-bound.
The Maori had no pack animals; no horses, donkeys, or mules, and no wheel. Apart from walking with your load on your back, boats were their only transport.
The Maori used boats for fishing, for carrying people and produce, and for trade; and trade they did.
Boats were how they moved around… and were how they moved things around.
The excavations at Kawatiri revealed large deposits of stone chips left over from adze making, and much of this came from remarkably distant sources.
Pounamu came from Hokitika and further down the west coast, Pahautane flint from between Kawatiri and Māwhera (Greymouth). Argillite from the Marlborough sounds and by Lake Rotoiti, Limestone Flint from the east coast, Silcrete from Central Otago, and Obsidian from the Coromandel Peninsula and particularly Mayor Island (the Maori call Mayor Island “Tuhua”, their word for Obsidian).
Stone is heavy, and the Maori had only 2 choices; either to carry it on their backs, or put it in boats. There is no doubt whatsoever that most of the stone used at Kawatiri was carried there in boats. In the case of the Obsidian, it was the only way.
Between noon on Dec 15th and noon December 16th Tasman sailed right across the Karamea bight, and past another site of significant occupation. At the Karamea River mouth is a huge field of mizzens; old waste pits. Only a few of these have been explored, but the remains subjected to carbon dating show occupation from the thirteenth century onwards, though it is unclear if settlement was continuous, or halted around the early 1600’s. Certainly the site was occupied when European settlers arrived as the location drew the name ‘Maori Point’.
At noon of December 16th Tasman’s ships passed the entrance to the Heaphy River, another site frequented by the Maori. But as with the Karamea site it isn’t known with any certainty if there was anyone actually at the Heaphy site at that time.
Tasman said there were no people there, but at the time Kawatiri was well established as a settlement, not a transient hunting location.
Whilst it might have been difficult to see the Heemkerck or the Zeehaen, from Karamea or Heaphy, they could easily have been seen from the dune tops at Kawatiri.
On the morning of Dec 15th, Tasman was off the Three Steeples. He recorded that “one mile west of this point we could sound no bottom.”
In that position he was 2 Dutch myles from the dune tops next to where the Tumatakokiri lived. His ships would appear about as prominent on the horizon as those rocks. If there was anyone looking, they would have been noticed. At that distance they would be clearly distinguishable as two vessels. An observer with keen eyesight could count the sails.
We don’t know if they were seen that day; no sighting of strange ships has survived into the contemporary oral tradition. It might have been remembered in the Ngati Tumatakokiri tradition, but that was lost with their demise. All that we know for certain is that it was perfectly possible for Tasman’s ships to be seen.
Two days later however, they were seen, … and of that, there is no doubt whatsoever.