First people to settle in NZ chose Marlborough

The first people to settle in Aotearoa chose present- day Marlborough to be their home.

This may contradict old school social studies lessons but chat with Te Runanga o Rangitane development manager Richard Bradley and you get the picture.

The affable former soldier, who served in Bosnia, is a descendant of these first people. He says modern archeological excavation and analysis employed in the area by Otago University confirms Marlborough-based iwi Rangitane settled near the mouth of the Wairau River, on Blenheim's east coast, 800 years ago. Rangitane people have lived in the area ever since.

Marlborough is the heart of New Zealand's wine industry. The region boasts high sunshine hours and the best little aviation museum in the world. Now it lays claim to the first human settlement in New Zealand. The iwi and the district council are working together towards developing a new museum and research centre in Blenheim to celebrate this historic link.

From Rangitane's headquarters building Bradley points to a block of land which the iwi owns, beside Highway-1, almost opposite the railway station. This is the likely site of the museum. He says the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC is keen to support the venture. A feasibility study concludes the growing worldwide interest in human evolution could ensure success.

The iwi campaigned from the 1850s for the settlement of grievances under the Treaty of Waitangi. The Crown's apology was accepted and the settlement document signed, at last, in 2010.

Meanwhile the iwi campaigned for return of ancestors' bodily remains to the Wairau Bar. The finding of human bones there led to Canterbury Museum doing archeological digs in the 1930s. The remains were taken to the museum for study and storage. Agreement with the museum was reached and a group of Rangitane travelled to Christchurch in 2009 to recover the remains. The bones of 65 ancestors, some of them intact skeletons, were re-interred with loving and respectful ceremony at Wairau Bar.

Bradley was part of the expedition. It was an emotional experience, he says.

Many artefacts were dug up and removed to museums too. Rangitane's focus now moves to a campaign to recover them. The artefacts belong to the ancestors so they should be brought back, says Bradley. They should be celebrated in interactive exhibition in the proposed new museum.

Excavations still go on at Wairau Bar but with a higher standard of care than previously, so if more remains lie in the ground they will not be disturbed.

"They must not be disturbed," Bradley says.

Research shows an estimated 600 people lived in a series of small villages at the bar. They came from islands in the Pacific as immigrants with deliberate plans to set up home here. This was not a case of "accidental colonisation" by voyagers being blown off course, he says. They came prepared and they quickly developed horticulture. They grew and stored kumara. They dug a system of channels for "the first marine farm". They hunted moa in the Marlborough region until all the birds were gone. All that happened in one generation, Bradley says.

This was a true settlement, established before any other is known to have existed in Aotearoa. These people were the true first New Zealanders.

"For them, there was no going back," Bradley says.

Early Europeans arrived and inter-marriage followed. At one time five taverns stood there, one of them run by a MacDonald, a forefather of many well known Marlborough figures, including Bradley. Other tribes visited. Some are still represented in the area. Some were not so friendly.

Bradley calls Wairau Bar "the crucible" of human civilization and "the interface between Maori and Pakeha" which forged a unique New Zealand identity.

To explain why the first Maori chose to settle here, he sketches a map of New Zealand with two arcs curving across the country. One marks the extremity of land where kumara would grow. The other arc shows the extent to which moa roamed. The arcs intersect at Marlborough. Only here could the Maori supply their meat and veg (moa and kumara) in one place. At Wairau Bar they had a shingle bank for trapping the large birds they drove towards the coast. On the frost-free slopes they found ground warm enough for growing crops. They had a river for fresh water, the sea and coast for fish, bush for timber, flax for weaving, stone (but not poenamo) for fashioning tools and weapons.

There is little to see where the Wairau River meets the sea today. Earthquakes in the 1850s changed the lie of the land and the course of the river. People moved inland to more stable ground. The town of Blenheim grew up on the banks of the Taylor River. And there a new museum may re-tell the birth of a nation.

The Press