Pacific colonisation one big 'pulse'

Academics are calling for a rewrite of Pacific history after new research indicating the immigration wave that colonised islands around New Zealand is out by about 400 years.
Academics are calling for a rewrite of Pacific history after new research indicating the immigration wave that colonised islands around New Zealand is out by about 400 years.

Academics are calling for a rewrite of Pacific history after new research indicating the immigration wave that colonised islands around New Zealand is out by about 400 years.

An historian says the peer-reviewed and published findings could call into question the notion of Maori as indigenous people.

The findings showed that islands such as Easter and Marquesas, as well as Hawaii, were settled hundreds of years later than thought, about the same time as New Zealand, researchers said.

The research – led by Janet Wilmshurst from New Zealand's Landcare Research, and Atholl Anderson, from the Australian National University – showed a rate of dispersal "unprecedented in oceanic prehistory", Dr Wilmshurst said. It also showed human impact on the islands – through fire, introduced predators and hunting – was faster than earlier believed.

"Whereas species declines were thought to have occurred over a thousand years or more, it now appears that in most cases several hundred years was all it took."

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, the findings came from analysis of 1400 radiocarbon dates from 47 islands – more than 10 times the number of radiocarbon dates of previous studies.

They show Polynesians migrated from Samoa to the Society Islands about AD1050, four centuries later than had been thought.

About two centuries later, they colonised other islands, including New Zealand, in one major "pulse". Dr Anderson said possible reasons for leaving the islands were rapid population growth, technical innovation in sailing boats, climate change and environmental disaster.

Existing models of human colonisation, ecological change and historical linguistics for the region now required substantial revision, he said.

The timing of the colonisation of the South Pacific had previously been poorly understood, with no definite timeline for colonisation in most island groups, excluding New Zealand.

Auckland University of Technology history professor Paul Moon said the findings could have implications for the Waitangi Tribunal because claims, using oral history, had Maori colonisation out by hundreds of years.

"If Maori reached New Zealand waters just 300 years before the first Europeans, some people might also start to reconsider the idea of Maori being indigenous. It could be interpreted as a different type of `indigenous' from the sort that applies to peoples who inhabited countries exclusively for thousands of years."

Professor Anderson dismissed Dr Moon's claim as "exaggerated", saying the most widely regarded figure for Maori settlement had already been about 1250.

"Dr Moon's argument that occupation of only hundreds of years could disqualify Maori from claiming indigeneity is illogical, since they were the first people here."

Richard Walter, an Otago University expert in the archaeology of New Zealand colonisation, backed the new findings and also dismissed Dr Moon's suggestions.

The Dominion Post