Mystery European died in NZ long before white settlers

Coroner rules on Wairarapa skull

Last updated 01:22 05/08/2008
TANYA KATTERNS/Dominion Post
MYSTERY: A skull found on the banks of a Wairarapa river has turned out to be a Caucasian woman who died about 100 years before the area was settled by Europeans.

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A skull found on the banks of a Wairarapa river has turned out to be a European woman aged between 40 and 45 years, who died between 266 years ago and 302 years ago, says a coroner.

"This suggests that the deceased may have been alive somewhere in the South Wairarapa in or about 1742," said Masterton coroner John Kershaw.

The coroner noted in his findings that despite radiocarbon dating by GNS Science indicating the woman was alive in 1742, historians said the Wairarapa was not settled by Europeans until after the New Zealand Company sent settlers to Wellington a century later, in 1840.

The European discovery of New Zealand was by Abel Janszoon Tasman in December 1642, and history records the first two white women to arrive in New Zealand as Kathleen Hagerty, and Charlotte Edgar, two convicts who escaped from New South Wales and arrived on this side of the Tasman in 1806.

Mr Kershaw said there were few facts available.

Sam Tobin was walking his family dog when he found the skull in October 2004 on the banks of the Ruamahunga River, south east of Featherston.

"We know the deceased was possibly a European female and likely aged between 40 and 45 years," he said.

In 2005, GNS Science indicated a radiocarbon age between 296 years – plus or minus 34 years.

Two Auckland forensic pathologists Dr Rex Ferris and Dr Tim Koelmeyer said the skull was an adult female, but was not Maori, and was probably Caucasian.

A Wellington forensic pathologist, Dr Robin Watt, said the woman was probably of European origin, aged 40-45, but he could not discount the possibility of Maori ancestry.

Masterton archivist Gareth Winter said there were no European inhabitants in the area 300 years ago.

Abel Tasman only journeyed along the west coast of the country and did not land anywhere in the North Island. And there were no records of a ship missing in NZ waters during this period.

English explorer Captain James Cook, visited Cape Palliser early in 1770.

Mr Winter noted that whalers used to visit the Wairarapa coast, but records of their activities were very rare.

- NZPA

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