Marlborough Maori are rolling the DNA dice

The Wairau Bar, 10 kilometres east of Blenheim, is the birthplace of New Zealand and one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world, its kaitiaki says.

Rangitane member and guardian of the site Wayne Abbott lived on the Wairau Bar for decades and is working with University of Otago researchers to understand its history.

Speaking at a repatriation ceremony on Saturday, he said the evidence of early human settlement was everywhere.

“You’ll see shell and bits of adze and other artefacts, it’s just oozing out of the ground if you know what to look for,” he said.

The Wairau Bar was one of two sites in New Zealand where researchers had discovered evidence of remains and artefacts that could be traced back to tropical Eastern Polynesia.

This link was discovered as a result of the agreement between Rangitane and the Canterbury Museum to return the bones of their tupuna that were taken from Wairau Bar by archaeologists.

As a condition of their return, the museum asked that the remains be examined by researchers at the University of Otago, who found the bones of several tupuna were not born in New Zealand, but in Eastern Polynesia.

The discovery had huge ramifications, as it meant the Wairau Bar was potentially the first point of colonisation in New Zealand, dating back to around 1280.

“It’s the birthplace of New Zealand and one of the top 100 archeological sites in the world,” Abbott said.

As well as the remains of the first-generation New Zealanders, researchers also found a shell that was used as a tool to punch holes had come from Eastern Polynesia, he said.

The large double-lined hangis uncovered at the site, one of which was five metres in diameter, were filled with the bones of moa, seals, fish and even the Haast Eagle – evidence the site was once a large village with abundant food supplies.

The resulting interest in the discoveries of the Otago researchers led to increased appetite to visit the Wairau Bar.

Rangitane chairwoman Tarina Macdonald compared its importance to archaeologists to the Vatican City for Catholics, saying “every archaeologist and his dog wants to come here”.

In June, the iwi are hosting a conference for the New Zealand Archeological Association.

Macdonald said around 200 people were expected to attend the conference, which was being held in Blenheim and would include a visit to the Wairau Bar.

As part of the conference, University of Otago biological anthropology professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith would conduct DNA tests on Rangitane members to establish their descent from the tupuna found at the site.

Macdonald said this would bolster the Rangitane claim to the thousands of taonga that were taken from the Wairau Bar, many of which were stored at Canterbury Museum.

Or it might not. It may open up a whole different can of worms – a strain of DNA that does not have any links to Maori at all. I must say, that’s a fairly brave move.


– Stuff


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  • AF

    My opinion : findings on the bar could indicate earlier colonisation by peoples of the Pacific and/or the existence of other similarly dated sites. Based on what has been found there, it appears the people who inhabited the bar either travelled extensively throughout NZ or were in contact with others who did. Fascinating reading but not related to the rolling of the DNA dice sorry.

  • Usaywot

    I’d love some DNA testing of maori from Northland to see if there is anything in the theory that the Spanish or Portuguese were here first. That’s if any survived long enough to breed with maori.

    • JustanObserver

      Deep in the Waipoua Forest there are sites that you are not allowed to visit which are NOT of Maori heritage.
      Opononi has shipwrecks which appear as Galleon construction buried in the sand dunes.
      Maori weren’t first here.

      • Mike Webber

        DOC had some of that Waipoua stuff radio carbon dated and it was 2250 BC. Maori history tells of 3 different people here when they arrived. Some of the older maori’s from Awakino and Waikawau used to teach us about their history and family tree, when we were teenagers and a bit older. it was very interesting, tangawhenua used to mean the people before.

        • Rick H

          So, how many schools are teaching the children this truth about our history, eh?
          I’d like to say “most of them”; but I believe the answer would actually be “none”.

      • Nyla

        I wish this information was made and discussed publically … it would stop all this I W I rubbish

      • Disinfectant

        Well, who wants to join me to find out?

    • Nyla

      german landed there … kaitai (however its spelt) have german great grandaddy

  • Dave

    To be a bit on the blunt side, who really cares? So they might have been here for a while, so they might have links to some other culture. The fact remains today, they (mostly) still hang on to times gone buy, and still manage to be at the wrong end of almost all stats known to society, and still have an entitlement attitude relying on society to support their lifestyles and health well above their income. What more interests me, is when will this all change, lets look forward, not find another reason to explain the past.

  • Davo42

    The bones are most likely not their Maori ancestors, but the ancestors of the Moriori that their ancestors committed genocide on when they arrived.

  • lyall

    can anyone go and submit some DNA to see if they are entitled to a share of the taonga lottery?

  • Oh Please

    Expect this to be swept under the carpet when non-maori DNA is found. Pre-maori European/Celtic people were here millenia before maori – but that would mean an end to the Waitangi gravy train.

    • johcar

      Yeah, nah. The Waitangi Gravy Train is too entrenched for mere facts to derail it…

    • Abjv

      The treaty was signed with the owners at the time. If there were previous owners, doesn’t invalidate the treaty itself and the tangata whenua at the time would still be the tangata whenua at the time. It would however dump all over “First Nation” claims. From my understanding, they are pretty safe at Wairau Bar that the DNA will be Maori/poly, but I wouldn’t suggest the same tests if they uncovered an ancient site in Hokianga.