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Bypass works unearth ancient site

Last updated 05:00 15/05/2012

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Whangarei Leader

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Archaeological features dating back to some of the earliest Polynesian inhabitants have been found in the Kamo area.

The significant archaeological evidence was uncovered as part of earthworks associated with the Kamo bypass which was completed last year.

"Using radio-carbon dating techniques we were able to place some of the archaeological features to around 1230-1275 AD with a high degree of certainty," says archaeologist Dr Sarah Phear of Clough and Associates which led the archaeological excavation and assessment.

"We were surprised at how old the site was, and also the fact that the site is so far away from the coast – which is quite rare for Northland."

Plant microfossil analysis indicated that large-scale clearance of forest had taken place by early Maori using fire.

"A lack of starch in the samples indicated that the deposits hadn't been used for cultivation, or for cooking starchy crops like kumara and fern root.

"This suggested that clearance of the forest had taken place at an early stage of settlement before human land use had begun, and that it was therefore reasonable to assume that it was an early site."

The archaeological "smoking gun", however, was a charcoal sample obtained from near the base of a feature which, over the course of decades, had been protected from factors like recent land clearance, cultivation and other activities that could have undermined the purity of the sample content.

"Although there were only two samples that were really suitable for carbon dating, the quality of this oldest sample was very good – so we're confident that the results have a high level of accuracy despite the small sample size."

Maori used fire for various reasons including clearing sites for cultivation, ensuring that living areas were free from tall vegetation, keeping tracks clear as well as encouraging bracken growth – a plant whose roots formed an important carbohydrate source.

One intriguing question remains unanswered – were the people who first started clearing the forest near Kamo the first generation of Polynesians who settled in New Zealand?

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- Whangarei Leader

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