Fishy finds in 660-year-old archaelogy dig

Researchers hunt for clues at an early Maori settlement on Great Mercury Island
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Researchers hunt for clues at an early Maori settlement on Great Mercury Island

Moa-bone fishhooks and fossilised dog poos are amongst the treasures unearthed by archaelogists combing the remains of one of the oldest human settlements ever uncovered in New Zealand.

But the researchers warn that rising sea levels and accelerating coastal erosion mean the sites will soon be lost forever.

A team of researchers from the University of Auckland and Auckland Museum have found evidence of a small fishing settlement on Great Mercury Island - the private island owned by controversial richlisters Michael Fay and David Richwhite.

The village, in Coralie Bay is thought to have been inhabited by Maori as early as 1350AD, just 30 years after some estimates of the first Polynesian landfall in Aotearoa.

Auckland Museum archaeology curator Louise Furey said the discovery helped build a picture of how early Maori settlers lived and worked.

"It's filling in the picture of how those early Maoris and Polynesians were using the coast."

The fish hooks were likely made from the bones of the smallest, and most common, moa species. While moa grew up to 2 metres in height, these birds were thought to be slightly larger than a turkey.

The birds were brought over from the mainland on canoes, where the fishermen would have eaten them then made use of their bones as well.

The last of New Zealand's moa species are believed to have been driven to extinction within 100 years of human arrival.

Furey said sites like this were becoming increasingly rare and this one was one of the oldest Maori settlements uncovered. She said there was no evidence to suggest people were in New Zealand before 1320AD.

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University of Auckland archaeologist Simon Holdaway said finds such as fish hooks and fossilised dog poo were small, but significant.

The dog poo helps paint a clearer picture of the relationship between early Maori and the dogs they brought with them on their Pacific voyages. Early settlers ate dogs, a meat saved for high-status Maori. They also used dog hair in cloaks and fed the dogs leftover fish carcasses. 

Holdaway said discovering moa-bone fishhooks was not unusual in a coastal areas, but the Great Mercury Island sites were better preserved than many other areas, thanks to a lack of development and intensive farming.

However, the site would not be there forever, Holdaway said.

Rising sea levels, bigger storms and other forms of coastal erosion meant the sites would only be around for about another 10 years.

'It's really, really important that we analyse the material that's left."

The team's most recent visit to the island was in June, and it will return in summer, when it hopes to find more traces of the lives of those who occupied the island.

Furey said she hoped to find kumara pits and houses. There were very few examples of early Maori houses and things such as the direction the house was facing or the location of the cooking area would help build a better picture of how Maori lived and how these habits have changed over time.

Holdaway said he hoped to find a waka.

"It's like the crown jewels."

 - Sunday Star Times

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