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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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

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