Tawhiti Rahi: Nga Poito o te Kupenga o Toi te Huatahi - A float of the fishing net of Toi te Huatahi. A multi-disciplinary study of Māori settlement of Tawhiti Rahi, an offshore island in northern New Zealand.
Robinson, James Justin
My archaeological research addresses the question of the role constrained and circumscribed offshore islands played in the initial Polynesian colonising phase and in the subsequent indigenous Māori culture in New Zealand’s horticultural north. Specifically it attempts to determine the timing of settlement and the nature of that settlement on the Poor Knights, a group of islands located off the east coast of Northland. This is then used to discuss the regional history of the coastal and island seaway from the mainland out to Great Barrier Island. Settled by Māori at an unknown time in the prehistoric period, these islands contain today a complex archaeological landscape of earth and stone structures along with faunal and lithic assemblages that are associated with Māori society just before contact with the western world. The fieldwork has focused on Tawhiti Rahi Island, the largest island in the group, and one that contains a remarkably well preserved prehistoric archaeological landscape variously interpreted by ethnographers, scientists and archaeologists as gardens, villages, defended forts as well as ceremonial and specialist areas. This island is interesting because despite the obvious horticultural potential from its volcanic soils, sheltered topography and temperate climate, it also has significant constraints on settlement such as difficult access, minimal water supply and a limited range of non-garden related exploitable resources especially when compared to other nearby coastal islands and mainland localities. Utilising a multi-disciplinary approach a range of natural science techniques, archaeological methods and historic and traditional sources are used to establish and explain when and why this island was settled. Results of the palynology research create a vegetation history of the island that provides proxy evidence for 500 years of gardening starting around 1300AD at the beginning of New Zealand’s prehistory. Archaeological survey and excavation show a complex constructed landscape that shows some direct garden activity in the middle of Māori prehistory around 400 years ago but most significantly show a significant increase in human activity at the very end of the prehistoric sequence that continues on onto the early historic period. Ethnographic and traditional history places these islands within the tribal territory of Ngatiwai that currently incorporates coastlines and islands from the Northland mainland out to Great Barrier Island, and identifies that gardens, mutton-bird and refuge potential as the primary reasons for many generations of use of Tawhiti Rahi. However the traditions are ambiguous when it comes to a chronology of island settlement. Although clearly identifying an early discovery and naming, they surprisingly place the arrival of the islands first chief as occurring very late in the sequence only 200 years ago. Finally there is the absence of the Polynesian rat kiore, (Rattus exulans) on the Poor Knights. Since kiore are commensal with Polynesian settlement and they are found everywhere on the New Zealand mainland and on nearly all inshore and offshore island groups, their lack here raises serious questions about our assumptions on how long these islands were settled, the intensity of that settlement and on the role of agency. It is suggested that an integration and reconciliation of these apparently conflicting data sets is possible. This thesis suggests that this island was in continuous use by Māori for 500 years from 1300 AD right up to their abandonment in 1823. However for the first few hundred years they were utilised only as a valuable garden outlier for people living at less constrained settlements on the mainland. Full and permanent occupation of the island that produced the diverse range of site types visible on the ground today, occurred much later in the prehistoric period as a direct response to inter-tribal conflict that was escalating in the 1700s. The implications of the data obtained from Tawhiti Rahi suggests that for Māori in prehistory these islands were not seen as a special case with a different and separate story to that found on the mainland. Instead they are component parts of a tribal maritime territory that included the mainland coast and offshore islands in a seaway sheltered by Aotea (Great Barrier) Island. Although the nature and timing of settlement may have followed different trajectories depending on the unusual mix of opportunities and difficulties inherent with living on this peripheral island, it is argued in this thesis that their actual usage of Tawhiti Rahi was entirely contingent on what was happening politically, economically and socially within Māori society in general. In this framework it is the sequence of ‘presence and absence’ scenarios left behind on this circumscribed island that allow for a discussion about change over time in the Māori history of this coastal region.
Advisor: Walter, Richard; Barber, Ian
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Department of Anthropology and Archaeology
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Archaeology; Māori; Ngatiwai; Tawhiti Rahi; Northland; New Zealand; History; Palynology
Research Type: Thesis