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Remains of 14th-Century Village in New Zealand Tells Tales of Māori History

The excavation, which unearthed moa bones and stone tools, helps fill a gap for researchers

An obsidian flake tool found at Eastland Port in Gisborne, New Zealand, is one of several artifacts discovered at the site of a 14th century Maori village. (Cinema East)
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The Polynesian people who came to New Zealand some 1000 years ago, first established themselves as the tangata whenua, which in the Māori language, means people of the land. Today, the indigenous Māori people make up about 14 percent of New Zealand’s population, and the culture's past and present remain an integral part of the island nation’s identity.

But while much of their early history is documented through songs and stories—from tales of Kupe, who the Māori consider to be the first adventurer to navigate to the landmass, to the deep roots of the pōhutukawa tree in Māori mythology—archaeological digs have also helped to piece together details of early Māori life in the land they first called Aotearoa.

Such is the case with a recently discovered 14th-century Māori village along the country’s South Pacific coastline. As The Gisborne Herald reports, the remains of the village were found in the present-day city of Gisborne, via an 8-foot-deep excavation on the edge of an old riverbed.

At the excavation site, University of Otago archaeologists uncovered bones of a flightless bird endemic to New Zealand called the moa, fish hooks fashioned from those bones, as well as stone tools made of obsidian and chert rocks that date back to the early 1300s.

In a press release, the team says the discoveries help to fill in the gaps about where the Māori people first settled in this area.

“We don’t know as much about early occupation around this part of the coastline as we do in other parts of the country,” University of Otago professor of archaeology Richard Walter says.

The archaeological work was conducted with the permission of Heritage New Zealand, which under the authority of the Pouhere Taonga Act, regulates the modification or destruction of the nation's archaeological sites.

The area is of historical importance because it’s believed to be the first landing place of canoes which carried Māori to the district in 1350. It’s also where the first contact between Māori and British explorer James Cook took place in 1769.

As the Herald reports, the excavation took place in anticipation of the development of a wharfside log yard. “Given the port’s location, we take the protection of these significant sites within operational areas very seriously,” Andrew Gaddum, general manager of Eastland Port Limited, which is constructing and operating the new log yard, tells the paper.

The Herald reports that the found artifacts are currently undergoing analysis in university labs.

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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