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New Zealand's First People come home


Tuesday 6 January 2009 2:34pm

The remains of some of the first people to settle in New Zealand are being returned to their home - 700 years after they were first laid to rest in a burial ground at Blenheim's Wairau Bar.

The 10-kilometre boulder bank at the mouth of the Wairau River is considered the most significant archaeological site in the country, providing the first conclusive evidence that New Zealand was originally colonised from East Polynesia. A small group of Polynesians lived in a settlement at the north end of the bar - a strategically-valuable location, close to ocean, estuary and river. They lived on the bountiful natural resources of the area and, unlike many other early sites in New Zealand, settled for many years - long enough to bury their dead.

In 1939, local schoolboy Jim Eyles discovered one of the graves, complete with a hollow moa egg and unique personal ornaments made from sperm whale teeth. Between 1938 and 1959, at least 44 graves were excavated at the bar and their contents taken to Canterbury Museum for study, yielding invaluable information about the earliest New Zealanders. The sites revealed numerous artefacts, oven pits and rubbish holes containing the bones of moa, seals, fish and birds - many species of which are now extinct.

But, for Rangitane iwi, the removal of their ancestors' remains from their home and final resting place has been a source of on-going anguish and controversy.

Rangitane Iwi Chairperson Judith MacDonald says describes the Wairau Bar as the centre of the iwi's universe. "Those people - our direct ancestors - were dug up out of their graves and taken far away. They need to come home."

Now, 50 years later, they are coming home. Canterbury Museum has agreed to allow all koiwi tangata (human remains) taken from the site to be repatriated to their original burial ground.

This week, a team of archaeologists and iwi embark on a month-long survey and excavation to select a suitable site that will not disturb any other graves. The team, led by University of Otago archaeological team director Associate Professor Richard Walter, will use advanced technology to scan and analyse areas close to the original burial ground, with the goal of finding an appropriate place to reinter the remains. The repatriation is scheduled to occur in April.

Associate Professor Walter says that, in the process, invaluable information about the site will be gathered, enabling the archaeologists to gain an understanding of how the Wairau Bar settlement functioned as a community.

"We've already studied how these people died. Now we want to know how they lived. This community was a living, breathing entity, full of people going about their normal lives and routines. The main purpose of our work here is to find a safe place to lay those people back to rest, but we are also hoping to gain an understanding of how ancient New Zealanders went about their day-to-day lives."

Associate Professor Walter says artefacts found at the site are identical to others of the same age found in East Polynesia.

"Wairau Bar finally put to rest wild speculation about pre-Māori settlement of New Zealand. The site shows an uninterrupted sequence of habitation from those first Polynesian settlers through to modern Māori."

The research at Wairau Bar is being blogged by University of Otago student Quinn Berentson - a first for an archaeological dig in New Zealand. Daily updates on the progress of the Wairau Bar excavations can be found at

For more information contact

Quinn Berentson
Media Liaison, Wairau Bar

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