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The Rat's Tale

A historical "document" isn't always a writing sample

Pat Shipman

The Right Documents

The archaeology of Remote Oceania is a perfect example of document discovery. The timeframe of human arrival in the western area (the region of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa) is reasonably clear because of the distinctive Lapita ceramics that are found in archaeological sites dating from about 950 B.C. in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. But over time the people who had so thoughtfully littered the western islands with bits of Lapita ceramics when they first arrived made fewer and fewer ceramics. By the time people left the western region to migrate into eastern Polynesia (including New Zealand, Hawaii, the Marquesas, Rapa Nui or Easter Island and Tahiti), they had stopped making pots entirely. Thus, dating the second, eastern part of the colonization of Remote Oceania is difficult.

When humans arrived in East Polynesia is particularly significant because so many of the islands of Oceania had experienced ecological catastrophes by the time of European arrival. For example, the deforestation of Rapa Nui has become an icon of human folly and ecocide, despite recent challenges to this idea. What pattern of settlement and catastrophe prevailed in the entire region?

The archaeological and ecological record spanning human arrival in East Polynesia is most detailed and densest in New Zealand. At A.D. 1285 to 1300, Wairau Bar on South Island is the oldest well-dated archaeological site in New Zealand. On that site Maori butchered more than 8,000 moas and consumed more than 2,000 moa eggs; in upper layers, there are huge numbers of seal bones, too. There are postholes from buildings, cutmarked moa bones and broken eggshells, stone tools, and burials of 37 individuals whose graves included such items as perforated moa eggs, real and imitation whale teeth, necklace reels, shark teeth, bird bone tubes and adzes. Moa eggshells placed as grave goods in human burials were dated by the radiocarbon method. Because of Wairau Bar, A.D. 1300 can be used as a dividing line between the time periods before and after proven human arrival.

About 1000 B.C.—before human arrival—85 to 90 percent of the New Zealand landscape was forested. After A.D. 1300, pollen from tall trees declined precipitously, and by 1840 about 70 percent of the forest had been replaced by bracken ferns and grasses. Starch from the bracken root is a major part of traditional Maori diet. Bracken was not planted, but was maintained and encouraged by frequent burning to remove competing woody plants. Not surprisingly, after A.D. 1300, the frequency of charcoal-bearing layers increased dramatically, in some places by an order of magnitude. Charcoal and bracken spores documents the chronology of human settlement in this region.

"Fern root or aruhe is not the only reason Maori favored open country," argue palynologists Matt McGlone and Janet Wilmshurst of Landcare Research in New Zealand, writing with anthropologist Helen Leach of the University of Otago in the New Zealand Journal of Archaeology in 2006. Traditionally, forest impeded the Maori ability to travel for hunting, gathering or trade. In 1844, the Reverend William Colenso wrote about an overland trip on North Island in which his Maori guides were "vociferating loudly their being privileged to see a koraha maori (indigenous fern-land, open country) again" after traveling for days in dense forest.

Human presence unmistakably altered the animal community of New Zealand too. After A.D. 1300, there was a 50 percent decline in bird species—the loss of about 40 species—that once bred on the New Zealand mainland. In addition, a bat, several species of frogs and numerous lizards became extinct. Remains of all but two of the extinct birds have been recovered from at least one archaeological site, showing they were still present when humans arrived. During the early occupation period, fur seals and sea lions also underwent a marked contraction of their range.

The extinction that causes me personally the greatest heartache was of 11 species of large flightless moas. Most of these birds were about the size of ostriches, but much heavier. The one I would really love to have seen is the wonderful Dinornis or "prodigious bird" named by English paleontologist Richard Owen in 1843. Its bones indicate that the top of its back was over 6 feet high and its weight was about 550 pounds. To have missed seeing such an extraordinary creature severely saddens me.

Probably the Maori felt, or feel, the same way. In 1870 Sir George Grey recorded a Maori saying, "Ka ngaro, I te ngaro, a te moa." This phrase translates as "to be lost as the moa is lost" and refers to a tragic and irreversible loss. 

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