Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Rat’s Tale – Polynesian Migration to New Zealand

Whence & when did Maori migrate to Aotearoa-New Zealand?

Since pre-European Maori society was non-literate there is no written record of arrival in Aotearoa. Oral tradition traced through whakapapa (genealogy) and archaeology provide alternative sources of evidence for first arrival and settlement, but both have their own limitations.

Maori tradition drawn from a number of tribal (iwi) histories holds that Maori arrival & settlement was the result of the voyage of a large number of waka (double-hulled voyaging canoes) over many years. These early settlers, according to oral tradition, originated from the “mythical” place, Hawaiki, now believed to be located in eastern Polynesia.

The Polynesian Triangle is bounded by Hawaii, Rapanui (Easter Island), and NZ.

Source: Kirch, On the Road of the Winds, (2000)

Early Pakeha ethnographers, S Percy Smith and Elsdon Best, synthesized accounts from different Maori iwi to create a new myth around the turn of the 20th century. A Great Fleet of Seven Canoes was said to have arrived around 1350 AD in a planned voyage of migration based upon earlier voyages of discovery by Kupe (750 AD) and others. While there were few hard facts to support such a concerted, large isolated migration, generations of New Zealand school children were taught this popular myth and it still retains a strong hold on popular belief today.

Enter the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) or kiore to the New Zealand Maori.

In the 1990s, scientific advances in radiocarbon dating techniques and genetics enabled scientists to begin tracing the origins and time of first presence of kiore in New Zealand.

The kiore, either as stowaway or cargo, sailed on the migration waka. Since the kiore cannot swim very far, there was no other way for it to travel from eastern Polynesia to New Zealand other than with humans. Given the lack of mammals in New Zealand, the kiore – along with the kuri or Maori dog – became important food sources for Maori in the following centuries and may have been deliberately taken to New Zealand to serve as food resource.

The kiore

Matisoo-Smith and Robins reported in 2004 that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis of kiore in New Zealand and across Polynesia showed that New Zealand kiore are genetically closer to Cook and Society Island kiore than those from other Polynesian island groups.

Possible Migration Paths for kiore
Source: Hutching, 2004, p. 186

A further line of inquiry has focused on radiocarbon dating of kiore bones and seeds gnawed by them from New Zealand sites. Work by Holdaway in 1996 concluded that kiore arrived in New Zealand much earlier than 1350 AD, perhaps as early as 200 BC, based on radiocarbon dating of kiore bones extracted from nesting sites of the extinct laughing owl. The earlier presence of kiore was explained as the result of accidental arrival and transitory presence in New Zealand of Polynesian voyagers.

These results were criticized for poor analytical technique as well as being inconsistent with known archaeological evidence, Maori traditional knowledge, and the accelerated clearance of forests and decline in marine and terrestrial species that pointed to a later arrival around 1300 AD.

In mid 2008, new radiocarbon dating results were reported by Wilmhurst et al that indicate kiore first arrival dates to be 1280-1300 AD. Importantly, the rat-gnawed seeds included in the sampling occurred in both the North and South Islands only after 1280 AD.

The study suggested important implications, according to Wilmhurst, namely that:

1) If rat predation of native species could only have happened after 1280 AD then the decline in those species could be occurring faster than previously assumed; and

2) Maori colonization did not occur over a protracted time period, but likely happened in a short period of such magnitude that it initiated an immediate and rapid transformation of New Zealand’s environment.

In sum, the current evidence from multiple sources – archaeological, scientific, and traditional knowledge - appears to point to first Maori colonization around 1280-1300 AD, though the pace and magnitude of colonization of New Zealand remains uncertain.


Matisoo-Smith E, & J H Robins, “Origins and dispersals of Pacific peoples: Evidence
from mtDNA phylogenies of the Pacific rat”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 101 no 24,
June 15, 2004, 9167-9172.

Holdaway, R N, “Arrival of Rats in New Zealand,” Nature, 384, 1996, 225-226.

Kirch, P V, On the Road of the Winds, University of CA Press, 2000.

Wilmhurst, J et al. Dating the late prehistoric dispersal of Polynesians to New Zealand using the commensal Pacific Rat”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 105 no 22, June 3, 2008, 7676-7680.

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