New light shed on origins of Maori

THORNY QUESTION: Where did Maori come from?
THORNY QUESTION: Where did Maori come from?

It seems the first European settlers were right about where Maori came from, writes MATTHEW WRIGHT.

Where did Maori come from? It's a thorny question, and every Pakeha generation, it seems, has looked for conclusive answers - trying to penetrate the allegory with which Maori oral records convey the story.

We've got those answers now, but it's been a long and very winding road to get there - one that, to me, is more about our changing ideas about ourselves than it has been about finding an abstract truth.

When Pakeha first started looking at the problem, about 160 years ago - based on what Maori told them, and what was also obvious - they basically got it right.

Largely on the basis of linguistic similarities, settler- ethnographers such as William Colenso concluded in the 1860s that Maori came probably from the Cook Islands or a nearby group. Whakapapa suggested they had done so early in the fourteenth century - as Colenso put it, "scarcely four centuries before Cook".

But in a spasm of rationalism, settler-age Pakeha scientists then rushed off on entirely the wrong tangent.

The first wrong-headed notion was "two race" settlement, which came on the back of discoveries by Christchurch settler-scientist Julius Haast and others of vast moa bone-yards in Canterbury and Otago. Massive butchery had gone on - and it seemed fairly clear that somebody had eaten those great birds to extinction.

The problem was that nobody could quite believe that Maori had done it. They seemed too careful with the ecology. So when the archaeological evidence was stacked up with Maori myths of fairy folk, settler-scientists came to believe that Maori had displaced earlier and mysterious "Moa Hunters", eventually dubbed "Moriori". This idea gained traction, although the settlers knew very well that Moriori were indigenous Chatham Islanders.

The whole idea of two-race mythology was first dislodged by H D Skinner in the early 20th century - and by others since. But it retained its popular traction.

The other gem of the late colonial age was Stephenson Percy Smith's notion of a mighty canoe migration from Hawaiki, each great vessel apparently bearing the ancestors of the iwi found by 19th-century settlers.

Colenso knew about those stories in 1868, dismissing them as a "mythic rhapsody". They didn't add up between iwi, for a start. But as the 19th century drew to a close, Smith revived the idea and turned it into a grand structure. Hawaiki was accepted as a mythic, the canoes literally true.

It has always seemed to me that the reasons for this misconception gaining ground just then had more to do with Pakeha society than Maori reality.

The myth of grand migration keyed into the Pakeha view of themselves as heroic pioneers. Naturally the indigenous people also needed to be heroic, thus elevating the settlers.

The idea got into the School Journal in the early 20th century, and children were still being taught these things as if true in the 1960s.

If we look back from today's perspective, it is hard to see the great canoe migration as anything other than a thorough Europeanisation of Maori legends.

A more scientific picture emerged during the last half of the 20th century, but it took years to dig up all the clues, years to refine the analytical techniques. Theories were proposed, other ideas dismissed.

Initial carbon-14 dating created the idea Maori may have arrived in New Zealand as early as the first or second century AD. This gained popular credibility on the back of the late 20th-century demonisation of settler philosophies and ideas about Maori.

However, refined carbon-14 dating methods gave more accurate readings. And the picture of Maori origins was shortly integrated with a growing picture of how humanity had spread across the Pacific.

Studies across multiple disciplines - archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, genetics and even mathematical analysis of canoe navigation - revealed that the first humans in New Zealand were Polynesians. They came from the Cook, Society and Austral islands, and arrived towards the end of a period of Polynesian expansion.

Genetic studies have shown that the original Polynesian settlement could have been small - maybe less than 200 people.

There is some evidence of return journeying.

But that ended quickly, possibly due to stormier weather on the back of natural climate change - the so-called "little Ice Age".

By the late 20th century an increasing body of evidence had pinned the moment when Polynesia arrived to around 1280 AD, and the first landing was probably on the Wairau bar.

Consistent evidence for an explosive spread of the colony - fuelled by a diet of moa - included the discovery of massive deforestation in Canterbury and Otago in the 14th century.

This settler society became an indigenous Maori world, roughly, during the 15th century, perhaps 200-250 years before Tasman.

The only thorn in the side of this picture was a 1995-96 study of the Pacific rat, which dated some bones to around 2000 years before the present.

The rat was known to mark human arrival.

The author of the study carefully indicated in his original paper that it pointed to a one-time visit - not settlement.

But that did not stop independent thinkers from using his report - apparently unread or misunderstood - to "prove" that everybody from Celts to Chinese had been here before Maori.

More sober scientific thought postulated a settlement too small to leave remains for archaeologists.

But all of it was a red herring. An early 2000s analysis, using improved techniques, showed that the anomalous bones actually came from around the late 13th- century settlement era.

So it turned out that the earliest Pakeha settlers had been generally right after all.

But it had taken around 150 years for thinking to get back to that point. I can only conclude that Percy Smith - and the old School Journal - have a lot to answer for.

* Matthew Wright's book, Old South: Life and Times in the Nineteenth Century Mainland, is published by Penguin.