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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Early Maori in New Zealand

Fascinating new details of pre-European settlement in New Zealand are revealed --

Much of the South Island of New Zealand is tussock country -- swathes of tall grasses where once tall trees reigned.  It has been known for a couple of centuries that it was fire that created this landscape, but only now is it proven that the fires were set by humans.

And, believe it or not, it is by tracing human poo in the ashy sediments.

Two studies of lake bottoms near Wanaka and Queenstown has turned up human faecal  matter in the same layers as charcoal and ash from the burning.

a team of nine researchers, from Italy, the USA and New Zealand, did the sampling.  The result:  little or no evidence of widespread burning before AD1280, the date that Polynesians first arrived in Aotearoa (plus or minus 20 years).  The only traces of previous burning probably came from lightning strikes, or burning ash blown over from wild-fire-prone Australia.  Up until that era, podocarp forests reigned supreme.

But then, about 1350, fire blazed across the plains -- or so the researchers report in the journal Scientific Reports.  The ash is abundant in the sedimentary layer of that time -- as is coprosterol, a trace of human stools that lasts for centuries.  And why that date?  Presumably because a giant chook -- the moa (Polynesian word for chicken) -- was on the verge of being hunted to extinction, and a major food source was gone.

A pity, that.  I would have liked to have seen a moa -- though not to eat, as I am sure they tasted like chicken.  Back in the day, tales drifted into the European colonial settlements that a moa had been sighted -- there was the little girl, for instance, who reported seeing "a huge chicken with legs like a Roman soldier."  According to a reminiscence in Fulbright in New Zealand, this tale set American Fulbrighter Max Carmen to wondering aloud what he would do if he saw a moa.  Take a photograph, of course!  But no, a friend argued.  A photo could be faked, so no one would believe it.  It would have to be shot, to provide final proof of the existence of the last living moa.

But, Carmen mused, how would anyone know that it was indeed "the last living moa"?

But, as to those great fires, there could have been another reason for their deliberate setting.  According to archaeologist Atholl Anderson and fellow Maori scholars, the fires could have been deliberately launched to promote the growth of bracken, the roots of which were a major source of carbohydrate, back in the day.

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