Dating the first New Zealanders: the chronology of Wairau Bar

Thomas F. G. Higham, Atholl Anderson, C Jacomb

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    The first colonization of New Zealand is a much debated issue. The lack of appropriate absolute dating has meant chronology has been poorly understood. New 14C dating of materials from archaic Polynesian graves and occupation levels provides important precision and understanding of early exploitation on New Zealand. A new series of radiocarbon determinations enables the critical site of Wairau Bar to be brought into discussion about the early colonization of New Zealand. Determinations on moa eggshell from grave contexts and estuarine shell from occupation layers show that the site was occupied towards the end of the 13th century AD. The brevity of occupation is consistent with similar early sites which also disclose rapid depletion of local big-game resources. On that ground, these sites appear to represent the earliest phase of human settlement in New Zealand. In terms of material culture, they contain both the widest range and the greatest abundance of types which belong to Archaic East Polynesian culture, regarded as the colonizing culture of New Zealand. The similarity in age between Wairau Bar and other early settlements, together with their brevity of occupation and evidence of resource depletion, suggests that the first colonists engaged in a sustained assault upon the fragile populations of big-game taxa, shifting their settlements frequently as local reserves were depleted (Anderson and Smith 1996). That behaviour made the colonizing horizon more visible than it might otherwise have been. On a larger scale, the same seems to be true of the colonization of the southern Pacific generally. There is an emerging regional sphere of interaction between mainland New Zealand and other islands in the region evidenced by the similarity of the earliest radiocarbon determinations from archaeological contexts in the Kermadecs, Norfolk Island and New Zealand (Anderson 1991; Higham and Johnson 1996; Anderson n.d.) and by evidence of the transfer of obsidian between these groups (Anderson and McFadgen 1990; Anderson et al. 1997). Taken together, these data suggest that the New Zealand region was settled as part of a mobile, expansive phase of exploration from tropical East Polynesia, no earlier than about 750 years ago. The new dates from Wairau Bar remove the uncertainty that Archaic East Polynesian settlement might have occurred substantially earlier and opens intriguing new avenues of enquiry regarding the process of adaptation by human beings in a new land.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)420-427
    Publication statusPublished - 1999


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