Traditional Maori myths may hold clues to natural hazards

The 2005 flooding of Matata in the Bay of Plenty inspired research examining Maori oral histories for warnings of ...
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The 2005 flooding of Matata in the Bay of Plenty inspired research examining Maori oral histories for warnings of recurring natural disasters.

Future flood, quake and eruption clues are hidden in Maori tales of giant lizards and taniwha, a geologist suggests.

Auckland researcher Dan Hikuroa became sure that indigenous legends, known as purakau, held vital information needed by natural hazard planners after learning of the disastrous Matata flash floods in 2005.

The Bay of Plenty town received a dump of more than 300 millimetres of rain in a single day, causing a debris landslide and destroying houses and roads. But Matata's three marae were unscathed, and one became an evacuation centre for dozens of those displaced.

Hikuroa was visiting the township as part of the university course he taught when he heard about a local legend of a giant lizard with a flicking tail.

"The lizard is the stream, or resides in the stream, and its head is in the headwaters and the tributaries are its limbs. And the tail starts where the [Waitepuru] stream enters the flat plain.

"When you get floods, it naturally through centuries and millennia would flick from side to side and that was the tail," the Nga Pae o te Maramatanga research director said.

"[There is] salient, scientific information that's been coded within the indigenous knowledge."

Hikuroa, a co-leader on one of the Government's intended National Science Challenge-funded projects, planned to examine other purakau with members of the iwi they belong to for concealed natural hazard observations.

Other scientists had looked into Maori oral histories for records such as tsunami, though Hikuroa would be broadly looking for observations of earthquakes, eruptions and flash floods, he said.

After the Christchurch earthquakes and liquefaction, it was noted how reluctant Maori had been to settle in pre-European swamplands around the city. Hikuroa would also study the siting of traditional villages as part of his project.

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One Wellington legend Hikuroa, as well as others, thought might be a record of past natural disasters was the tale of taniwha Ngake and Whataitai. 

"It talks about Wellington Harbour being a lake and then one of the taniwha decides he has had enough, can hear the ocean out there and smell it ... Ngake bashes his way out, forms the opening to the harbour. Whataitai is not so keen, but pines for his friend and decides to do it as well.

"But he doesn't make it and becames the land that is Whataitai [or Hataitai], the low-lying area that is the airport.

"If I was to sit down with the local people, I'd be thinking ... it might well be seismic activity or a tsunami, if you've got water rushing in," he said.

"There might be similar information [on natural hazards] within this that's yet to be explored."

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 - Stuff

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