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Study: Humans Arrived in New Zealand 1,000 Years Later

June 3, 2008

A new scientific study claims to add proof to the theory that humans didn’t arrive in New Zealand until 1300 A.D.

Using radiocarbon dating of rat bones and rat-gnawed seeds, New Zealander Dr. Janet Wilmshurst and her team of researchers showed that human settlers may have colonized the region from 1280 A.D. to 1300 A.D., about 1,000 years later than some scientists previously believed.

The study supported the oral history of the Maoris who claim they were the first Polynesians to arrive in New Zealand around that time, said Retired Maori Studies professor Ranganui Walker.

“We now have a clear picture of our country’s settlement that lays to rest once and for all the Moriori myth, and so it is something to celebrate,” Walker said.

Their findings contradict those published in Nature magazine in 1996, which claimed there was evidence to prove that man was in New Zealand from around 200 B.C.

Wilmshurst and her team re-excavated and re-dated bones from nearly all the previously investigated sites. They said none of the rat bones that they studied were from earlier than 1280.

“As the Pacific rat or kiore cannot swim very far, it can only have arrived in New Zealand with people on board their canoes, either as cargo or stowaways,” Wilmshurst said. “Therefore, the earliest evidence of the Pacific rat in New Zealand must indicate the arrival of people.”

Researchers also dated more than 100 native seeds with rat bite markings that had been preserved in peat and swamp sites on North and South Islands. This data coincided with that of the rat bones to support the same claim.

Dr. Tom Higham, a member of Wilmhurst’s team and deputy director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at Oxford University, said the teeth marks could not be mistaken for those of another animal.

The arrival of rats proven through the dating of the seeds provided additional evidence of the arrival of humans, Higham said.

Among the seeds analyzed were some that were intact or bird-cracked, and the rat-gnawed ones occurred in both islands only after about 1280.

But Prof. Richard Holdaway, a lead researcher on the earlier human contact theory published in Nature, on Tuesday stood by his 1996 study that found evidence of rats and humans in New Zealand more than 2,000 years ago.

“Rats arrived, people obviously arrived (but) whether they stayed – I have consistently said they didn’t,” he told TV3 News. He also suggested that the new research team did not consider all available evidence in its study, leading to the different results.

University of Adelaide paleontologist Trevor Worthy, a member of the Wilmhurst team, was adamant the new carbon dating results proved the Nature claim wrong.

“There is no supporting ecological or archaeological evidence for the presence of Pacific rat or humans until 1280-1300 A.D. and the reliability of the bone dating from that first study has been questioned,” Worthy said. He did not explain why the other study had been questioned, or by whom.

The recent study is published in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image Caption: This image shows Harriet, (Heke’s wife), Hone Heke and Kawiti. Harriet (Hariata) is on the left in a European skirt, a Maori cloak worn as a stole around her upper body and tied at the waist, leaning on Heke’s shoulder. Heke stands centrally, holding a rifle and wearing a short checked flax and feather cloak and flax skirt. His uncle Kawiti is on the right in a flax cloak, holding a taiaha. (Wikipedia)

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences