Kūmara pits discovery rewrites archaeology history in Aotearoa

By Mare Haimona-Riki

An Otago University researcher is praising the South Island hapū, Kāti Huirapa ki Puketeraki, for its help in discovering ancient kūmara pits, in Pūrākaunui just north of Dunedin.  

“We were there for training purposes,” Associate Professor Ian Barber says.

“But, once we excavated the remains for the students, we encountered evidence of these pits which were part of the original archaeological site.”

Barber says the discovery of the pits rewrites archaeological history about how far south Māori used and stored kūmara, in ancient times.

He says this discovery suggests early Māori were adapting to a declining moa population, forcing them to find ways to store food in a harsher climate.

“That conclusion is based on radiocarbon dating on the pits.

“These pits were dated to the period 1430-1460 AD or CE, and that is the time when another independent carbon dating indicates that moa populations disappeared in the South Island.”

Professor Barber concludes that hapū and iwi involvement is not only critical but essential to any archaeological project in Aotearoa.  

“Quite simply, both sides are enriched.”

“The scientific side is enriched by the cultural perspective, and I’d like to think that for iwi and hapū, the advantage is that there's more technical information to allow them to exercise their mana whenua and rangatiratanga over those places.”