600-year-old waka surprises researchers

19:47, Oct 01 2014
Waka found in Golden Bay
OLD VESSEL: The waka was unearthed in Golden Bay in December 2011.

An ancient waka found on the South Island’s West Coast has created a scientific sensation around the world.

The 600-year-old canoe, with a turtle carved on its hull, is proving that Polynesians sailed between what is now French Polynesia and New Zealand.

A study of the waka by University of Auckland researchers appeared yesterday in the prestigious US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Golden Bay resident Tony Nicholls was out on the West Coast Anaweka estuary for a family picnic after Christmas in 2011 when he saw something unusual.

He and his grandson saw a piece of wood sticking about 40 centimetres out of the creek bank. After almost three hours of digging, Nicholls and his family had unearthed a 6.2-metre section of an ancient waka.

The significant find is a well-preserved length of carved matai, with dozens of holes along the edges and "extraordinary" carvings on the hull. One of the most distinctive carvings is in the shape of a sea turtle.


"We knew it was something of interest but we still were not sure until we got down to the hull," Nicholls told Stuff in January 2012.

Today his hunch was proven with Live Science website reporting the researchers who examined the shipwreck say the vessel is more impressive than any other canoe previously linked to this period in New Zealand.

"It kind of took my breath away, really, because it was so carefully constructed and so big," said Dilys Johns, a senior research fellow at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

The hull measured about 6 metres long and it was made from matai. The boat had carved interior ribs and clear evidence of repair and reuse. Carbon dating tests showed that the vessel was last caulked with wads of bark in 1400.

The Auckland team which included Geoffrey Irwin and Yun Sung say it's likely that the hull once had a twin, and together, these vessels formed a double canoe.

Johns told Livescience  the boat was surprisingly more sophisticated than the canoes described centuries later by the first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand.

The newly described canoe seems to represent a mix of that ancestral plank technology and an adaptation to the new resources on New Zealand, since the boat has some big, hollowed-out portions but also sophisticated internal ribs, Johns and colleagues wrote.

The turtle carving on the boat also seems to link back to the settlers' homeland.

Turtle designs are rare in pre-European carvings in New Zealand, but widespread in Polynesia, where turtles were important in mythology and could represent humans or even gods in artwork.

The study notes that in many traditional Polynesian societies, only the elite were allowed to eat turtles

The study published by Proceedings is titled “An early sophisticated East Polynesian voyaging canoe discovered on New Zealand's coast” and says the colonization of the islands of East Polynesia was a remarkable episode in the history of human migration and seafaring.

The Los Angeles Times ( http://www.latimes.com/ ) says the waka survived because the swampy, oxygen-poor spot it was buried in allowed the canoe to survive the centuries.

“It was one of those situations where it sort of took your breath away,” Johns told the Times.

“I’d never seen anything like it.”

 The  canoe shares some design elements with a canoe found about 30 years ago on Huahine in the Society Islands.

When Stuff reported the find it quoted Nicholls saying that when they saw the turtle “we immediately thought of the Pacific Islanders."

After extracting the waka with a tractor,  Nicholls left his find in a shed and returned to Anaweka the next day to retrieve it. He used mattresses to protect the waka on his trailer during the two-hour drive back to Takaka.

Representatives from the local iwi – Manawhenua Ki Mohua – turned up to inspect the waka at Nicholls' workshop at Waitapu Engineering.

"I just went with the flow and they seemed to want to take it away," Nicholls said. After building a custom-made soak tank for the waka, Nicholls delivered the artefact to iwi hands, at a shed at Port Tarakohe.