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Cultivating the past

What role did introduced crops and agricultural techniques play in the colonisation of New Zealand?

Associate Professor Ian Barber (Archaeology) describes this as “a profound, unresolved problem in New Zealand archaeology” and has set about trying to solve it.

Barber explains that there is rigorous debate over the importance of the adaptation by New Zealand Māori and Chatham Islands Moriori of tropical Polynesian crops and agricultural techniques to a temperate land.

“One extreme view is that the people who came here pretty much gave up on crops; they did persist with kumara in the warmer parts of the country but, by and large, they were hunters and gatherers."

“The other scenario is that they managed to successfully adapt tropical crops and agricultural techniques so as to anchor settlement in a number of diverse New Zealand places.”

Barber cites as an example of this adaptation one particular innovation in the growing of kumara: the addition of stones to soils to retain heat and facilitate drainage. He says that the kumara storage pit was another unique Māori innovation, to extend supply and keep seed.

“I will be excavating archaeological sites, both storage pits and also agricultural sites, to get new material to identify the technologies and, most particularly, to date those technologies, so we know when they were brought in and, therefore, we can infer how important they were for colonisation.”

Barber is undertaking the research with financial help from the Marsden Fund, specialist botanical research from a postdoctoral researcher, and statistical modelling from Professor Richard Barker (Mathematics and Statistics).

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