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Story: Anthropology and archaeology

Early explorers and missionaries recorded information about Māori culture and practices, and in the late 19th century ‘salvage anthropology’ aimed to preserve cultural information before it was lost. Archaeologists have studied Pacific migrations, Māori cultural practices and when humans first reached New Zealand.

Story by Peter Clayworth
Main image: Archaeologists working in Dunedin, 2012

Story Summary

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Anthropology is the scientific study of humans, including comparing different cultures. Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory through physical sites and remains.

Explorers and missionaries

In the 18th century Europeans were fascinated by different peoples. British explorer James Cook’s voyages to the Pacific recorded information about Māori and Pacific peoples. French explorers Julien Crozet and Dumont d’Urville also recorded notes about Māori.

Early-19th-century missionaries spent years living among Māori. Although they often disapproved of Māori cultural practices, they recorded what they saw and heard.

Colonial anthropology and archaeology

In the colonial era Pākehā who wrote about anthropology included:

  • George Grey, a colonial governor who learnt about the language and culture from Te Rangikāheke and other Māori experts
  • Edward Shortland, who published works on Māori language and traditions
  • Elsdon Best, who worked in the Urewera and recorded Tūhoe traditions and history.

In 1847 Walter Mantell dug up moa bones at Waikouaiti, Otago. He later retrieved oven stones and stone tools. In the 1860s and 1870s German geologist Julius Haast dug up moa remains and stone tools. He believed that an ancient, primitive people had killed off moa, and that Māori had arrived later.

Beginnings of professionalism

In 1892 the Polynesian Society was set up to preserve knowledge of Māori customs and traditions, which some people believed were being lost. Māori had also been working to preserve cultural knowledge.

In the early 20th century some museums appointed anthropologists. New Zealand’s first trained anthropologist was H. D. Skinner, who studied at Cambridge University in England. Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) was a doctor who became an anthropologist and studied Pacific peoples and migrations.

The mid-20th century

In the 1920s archaeology became more important in studies of New Zealand’s past. In 1939 schoolboy Jim Eyles found human and moa remains at Wairau Bar in Marlborough. These provided details of lives and burial practices during early Polynesian settlement.

Anthropology became established as a subject in universities from 1950.

1960s onwards

From the 1960s anthropologists and archaeologists embraced new technology and new areas of study. Many young Māori who studied anthropology in the 1960s and 1970s later became community leaders. In the 1980s Māori studies became a separate subject at Victoria and Auckland universities. Some Māori opposed Pākehā studying Māori culture.

From 1975 the Historic Places Act protected all archaeological sites. New techniques allowed sites to be examined without digging. DNA analysis allowed further research into Polynesian migrations, and debate continued over when humans first arrived in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Anthropology and archaeology', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/anthropology-and-archaeology (accessed 24 June 2017)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014