Mangahāwea: The first site of human settlement in NZ?

By Raniera Harrison

Moa bones, obsidian, and traditional tā moko instruments have been found at a small Bay of Islands inlet- believed to be the first known settlement in New Zealand. 

The objects were uncovered by Northland iwi, the Department of Conservation(DOC) , Heritage NZ and a series of archaeologists from around the country.

"Some treasures have been found, believed to have been bought here from Tahiti, the place they call Taputapuātea- the cultural mecca of the Pacific Islands" says Ngāti Kuta, Te Patukeha kaumātua Matutaera Clendon.

Carbon dating shows the first inhabitants lived in the area at Mangahawea Bay at Moturoa island around 1250AD.  Scientists believe this is one of the first known sites of human occupation in the country.

"We have potentially some of the first gardens anywhere in the country, and therefore the first gardens on the last land mass to be settled in the world- it's pretty exciting," says Andrew Blanshard of DOC- who has been involved in the research and site excavation here since 2006.

Those present at Mangahāwea say that the merging of western science and Māori tradition has been beneficial at this site, which was first excavated in 1981.
"It's difficult for Europeans to believe in something without sighting it first-hand.  Our belief system tells us it is not necessary to see something in order to believe," says Kipa Munro of Ngāti Rēhia, who has connections to the mana whenua of Ngāti Kuta and Te Patukeha through his ancestor, Rewa.

Excavations at the remote Bay of Islands inlet have been taking place for the last two weeks- those involved say it is a collaborative approach.

"We've got tangata whenua, we have Heritage NZ, Department of Conservation, both of the academic institutions that do archaeology in this country- Otago and Auckland are all here and they're all involved. So no one is being excluded," says Blanchard.

Scientists believe the presence of taro plantations is a sign that this was home to some of the very first Polynesian navigators.

"The discovery of this pit and deliberation whether this is a taro plantation.  That is important for Western scientists to confirm this is a very old settlement."

The prospect, for Blanchard at least, is groundbreaking- and hugely exciting.

"It must be early, it's really only how early.  If these are really taro gardens then we are looking at something truly significant," he says.

Ngāti Kuta and Te Patukeha are looking to erect a pou at the site in collaboration with Tuia 250- a national commemorative event tracing 250 years since the landfall of James Cook, aboard the Endeavour.