Opportunists exploit migration data to take cheap shots at Maori

Sunday Star Times 2 January 2011 (longer unedited version)

 by Rawiri Taonui



 Analysis of more than 1,400 radio carbon dates from 47 Polynesian has thrown up some groundbreaking ideas - none more interesting than the proposition that East Polynesia was settled several hundred years later, but much faster than previously thought. After migrants arrived in Tahiti in 1025-1120AD the remainder of East Polynesia was settled via an intense migratory “pulse” between 1190-1290AD probably driven by population growth,technical innovation in sailing vessels, climatic change or environmental disaster.  Opportunists have exaggerated or misrepresented the findings of this specialised but narrow study to cast a negative light on a number of Māori issues in a manner echoing the Warrior Gene debate of 2007. 

The 1250 date for New Zealand has been misrepresented as “new”. One of the researchers, ProfessorAtholl Anderson proposed it in 1999.   Discussion has overlooked that the proposed chronology is based on just 200 of the 1,400 radiocarbon dates canvasses, which although they produce higher precision narrowertimeframes, set aside several hundred more equally important broader rangesamples suggesting Tahiti, the Northern Cooks, New Zealand and Easter Island weresettled as early as 350BC. The researchers admit their hypothesis is “falsifiable” – another piece of a larger puzzle not the lastword on the subject. For instance, rising Holocene sea levels beginning from about12,000 years ago did not reach current levels until around 600AD which may haveobliterated the earliest coastal sites. Rather than a negative for Māori achievement, the new proposition suggests East Polynesian seafarers achieved an unprecedented rate of dispersal in prehistory settling more than 500 islands within just 200 years.


It included long migratory voyages across open water without western navigational instruments to Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island at a time when European mariners clung nervously to the coastlines of Europe and the Mediterranean several hundred years before Christopher Columbus accidently bumped into the Americas.   The suggestion that the previous 800AD date for the settlement of New Zealand came from Māori oral tradition is also misleading – that date was the standard fare of 1980s archaeology.   There are also no authentic oral traditions that measure dates in years. Those that do stem from the discredited work of European scholar Percy Stephenson Smith who claimed Kupe discovered New Zealand while sailing from Rarotonga toward a rather rare conjunction of the setting sun, moon and Venus on November 27 925AD. The conjunction never occurred that month – though it did on November 27 1896 when Smith was on board a steamer from Rarotonga to New Zealand.

 He also misused a 42-generation genealogy to date Māori arrival. Beyond 20-30generations Māori genealogies display a range of specialised techniques. The one Smith used comprises collateral lines tacked end-to-end for the purposes ofrecital - properly interpreted it collapses to about 30 generations, which coincidentally converts to around 1200AD.   He chose one discoverer to fit a Western model of Māori history that existed only in his mind. Māori oral traditions name 30 Kupe-type ancestors.


These were “founders not discoverers” - each tribe or region honouring the first of their communities to settle an area, just as the English named Captain James Cook as the discoverer of New Zealand despite knowing Māori and Abel Tasman arrived before him.   Unfortunately, some Māori continue to promulgate Smith’s thesis but this is more of postcolonial intellectual indoctrination rather than the integrity of original traditions.


 The research also has no bearing on the Waitangi Tribunal. Its  main concern is identifying which tribes occupied what lands in 1840 and how those lands were stolen. Oral histories assist the former, but more importantly, the bulk of the Tribunal’s work investigates post-1840 land theft, the evidence for which rests exclusively on the Crown’s vast self-indicting records, not oral history. 

  Use of the study to question Māori indigenous status is disingenuously.  Professor Anderson described it as “illogical.”The United Nations defines indigenous people as the descendants of the first occupiersof a land who have a distinct culture and language. Whether Māori arrived in350BC or 1250AD - the fact remains they beat Europeans to our foreshores by several hundred years.     


The UN also describes indigenes as colonised peoples whose lands were stolen, culture, lifeways and languages disrupted, and who continue to suffer discrimination and prejudice. The asinine anti-Māori comments this week reinforce the latter is alive and well – perhaps even 2,360 years after first settlement.


Dr Taonui is writing a book on Māori origins and oral traditions to be published by the University of Hawaii Press  – rtaonui@xtra.co.nz




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