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The boulder bar at the mouth of the Wairau river.

The boulder bar at the mouth of the Wairau river.

It’s not much to look at, but Wairau is probably the most important archaeological site in New Zealand.

It is the location of the oldest known settlement, and also the location of the oldest human remains yet discovered.

Interest in the site originated in 1939 when schoolboy Jim Eyles found some old bones. He had come across an ‘Urupa’, or burial ground. He discovered more in 1942, and this attracted academic interest. In 1942, Roger Duff began what would be a prolonged series of investigations on the Wairau Bar. In his excavations, 2000 items were removed to the Canterbury, including more than 40 skeletons.

The Wairau bar occupation site

The Wairau bar occupation site

The site, now a long boulder spit, used to be an island, and was home to a significant village. The Urupa was separated from the dwellings by about 60m. The site comprises; building footprints, ovens, waste pits, and adze work sites, and covers about 11 hectares (≈3 acres). More than 60 grave sites have been exposed, containing precious items as well as the individuals’ remains.

Of the 2,000 items catalogued, three are of particular interest; tattoo chisels, a shell tool, and argillite adze heads.

The tattoo chisels demonstrate that this was a settlement with ordered society, not just a place of occasional repose occupied during seasonal food gathering. Tattoo tools meant that there were people there of various ages, young and older, and that they observed religious and customary practises. This was a centre of settlement, not a food gathering outpost.

The shell tool is made from ‘Acus crenulatus’. This a gastropod species found in Polynesia, but exotic to New Zealand; it had been carried to the Wairau Bar from Polynesia. One edge of the shell is sharpened for cutting. It is not known if it was carried by the original owner, or by a close descendant, but the former is quite likely; as such tools have a limited useful lifespan.

The Wairau Bar site was established; either by original Polynesian immigrants, or their very close descendants.

The Argillite adze heads are interesting in several respects; there are so many of them, there is no argillite source within 100 km; and the style of the adze head is Polynesian, not the evolved Maori form.

Carbon dating of the human remains confidently ages them at 1290 AD +/- 10 years. This is the earliest secure dating of any New Zealand colonisation.


The skeletons of a kiwi, ostritch and moa

The locality, at the mouth of the Wairau River provided the population with a wide variety of food. Immediately to hand there was fur seal, fish, shellfish, eels and water fowl. The Wairau river also gave them access to the interior of the South Island, where the flightless giant moa roamed in abundance.

Moa bones and eggs were also found within some of the grave sites. The moa became extinct within about a century of human arrival, so their presence in the graves suggests that these graves are either those of a founding population, or one that was only descended a very few generations from the founding population.

The other evidence suggesting that this settlement was Polynesian, or immediately following, comes from DNA analysis of the remains. The complete genome of four individuals was extracted. It shows that three of the four individuals had no common recent maternal ancestor.

These individuals were only distantly related. If they were the offspring of a local population, then they would be very closely related. This further suggests that the occupants of the voyaging waka’s were deliberately selected from diverse family groups.

Adze head mounted on a contemporary shaft

An adze head mounted on a contemporary shaft

69 adzes were found at the Wairau Bar site. The huge number of stone chips suggests that adze making was an industry, not simply manufacture for their own use. It is estimated that about 12,000 adze heads were made there; astonishingly, most were made from stone from distant sources.

Most adzes were made from Argillite. The closest sources for this are the eastern side of D’Urville island, up the Wairau River, near Lake Rotorua. Three of the adzes were made of Greenstone from the West Coast of the South Island, and one was of Tahanga basalt, from the Coromandel. There were also Chert chips from Kaikoura.

This indicates that either the Wairau Bar population travelled extensively around both the North and South Islands, or that stone was brought to them and traded. Either way, even though the total population was very small, large distances were routinely travelled to acquire or trade significant resources.

Adzes were essential for shaping wood, and for the making of boats. They were also required for Moa hunting. The rubbish pits contained the remains of over 4,000 moa.

The Wairau Bar location is an extraordinary source of information about New Zealand’s first settlers, and how they lived. What has been learned about archaic settlement could not have been achieved without the extraordinary assistance of the local tribe; Rangitāne o Wairau.

Maori hold their ‘tupuna’, their ancestors, in the highest regard, and their remains and relics are revered and most sacred. They are not normally given up to be poked and prodded by curious Europeans.
The Rangitāne o Wairau however, gave permission for some of these relics to be forensically examined… even though this would require their partial destruction. From this we have learned an enormous range of detail about where these people came from, what they ate, and what their lives were like. It was a most remarkable gift.

In 2009 the remains of 41 individuals were returned to the Rangitane o Wairau after many years at the Canterbury Museum. The Rangitane o Wairau recognised them as ‘tupuna’, ancestors, , and re-interred them with utmost reverence.

The tribe ‘Rangitane o Wairau ‘ takes its name from Rangitane, the grandson of Whatonga. The Rangitane occupied the area in the 1500’s; prior to that it was occupied by Ngati Mamoe, and Ngai Tara.

All three tribes descend from the occupants of the Kurahaupo.

Wairau location map

Wairau location map

The Wairau river, and surrounding plains were within easy reach of any population in the Wellington area. From the Harbour, ‘Te Whanganui a Tara’, you followed the coast west, then cut across the narrowest part of Cook Strait ( just 22km) to Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds. Then, you followed the coast South until you met the river mouth. The Wairau is the first major river you meet, and this gives access to the interior of the South Island, and to the moa.

In fair conditions this could be achieved in a single day’s sailing.

Even before settling on the Bar, there would had been regular expeditions up the Wairau River by the Wellington population, to exploit the moa resource.

We do not know, but it is perfectly possible that the Wairau bar was occupied by people that had travelled with Tara from Heretaunga to Mirimar. Among them could have been ‘originals’ that had voyaged from Ra-iatea, on the Kurahaupo.

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1 Comment

  1. Mike

    A very interesting article. The fascinating part is the large number of adze heads for a smallish village and the fact the rock material came from so far away. It suggests there were other early Polynesian colonial sites with considerable number of people. This gels with the finding that about 60 women and perhaps 200? or more men made up the original colonists. At 20 odd sailors per waka, this makes up a considerable fleet of around 12 boats. There seems to have been at least 4 settler nodes -Otago coast, Wairau Bar “island”, Paliser Bay and Opito Bay area. I hope large quantities of DNA material were taken from the marrow before the bones were reburied

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