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Anthropology and archaeology

by Peter Clayworth

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.

Explorers and missionaries, 1769 to 1840

Anthropology is the scientific study of humankind, including the comparative study of different cultures and human evolution. In the 19th century the term ethnology was often used for this. Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory through the analysis of physical sites and material remains. While often carried out through excavation, archaeology may also include aerial photography, the observation of surface-visible sites (examination without digging) and the underwater examination of shipwrecks.

Tahitian anthropologist

Joseph Banks recorded Tahitian priest Tupaia, who travelled on James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand, in discussion with learned Māori elders at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay): ‘Tupia ... askd them in the course of his conversation with them many questions; among the rest whether or no they realy eat men which he was very loth to believe; they answerd in the affirmative saying that they eat the bodys only of those of their enemies who were killd in war.’1

Early contacts

In the 18th century European thinkers were fascinated by the vast range of peoples encountered during the expansion of western trade and empires. On each of his three Pacific voyages, British explorer James Cook recorded detailed accounts of Māori and other peoples throughout the Pacific. The naturalists Joseph Banks, on Cook’s first voyage (1769–70), and Georg and Johann Forster, on the second (1772–75), also made careful notes on the Pacific peoples. The similarities of Māori to other Polynesians, along with the differences between Polynesians and Australian Aborigines, were clear.

French explorer Julien Crozet, who visited the Bay of Islands in 1772, also recorded valuable observations on local Māori. Crozet’s very negative views of Māori can be explained by the fact that his expedition leader Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne and 24 crew members were killed by local Māori. Fellow Frenchman Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville, a skilled linguist, made extensive notes on Māori language and culture when he visited in 1824, 1827 and 1840.

Missionaries, language and culture

The early-19th-century missionaries, while not dismissive of science, saw the relationships between the world’s peoples through a biblical frame. They generally regarded most Māori traditions as products of sinful paganism that should be abandoned for civilised Christian practices. Missionaries were, however, the first Pākehā who spent years living among Māori to record what they saw and heard. Some, including Elizabeth Colenso, Robert Maunsell and William Williams (editor of the first Māori dictionary), became highly accomplished linguists. William Colenso and Richard Taylor also produced valuable ethnographic accounts.

    • Quoted in Anne Salmond, The trial of the cannibal dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas. London: Allen Lane, 2003, p. 125. Back

Colonial anthropology and archaeology, 1840 to 1890

Ethnology in the mid-19th century

In the mid-19th century the western view of relationships between human groups was dominated by the idea of race. Europeans ranked races hierarchically, with themselves at the top. In the 1860s the new concept of Darwinian evolution appeared to explain why indigenous peoples often seemed to decline in numbers when their lands were colonised by Europeans.

Governor anthropologist

Governor George Grey explained his reasons for studying Māori language and mythology: ‘I soon perceived that I could neither successfully govern, nor hope to conciliate, a numerous and turbulent people, with whose language, manners, customs, religion and modes of thought I was quite unacquainted.’1

Colonisation and anthropology

In the colonial era Pākehā who produced anthropological writings were generally those whose work had led them to learn the Māori language and spend a lot of time with Māori. These scholars recorded much valuable information, but always interpreted it through the lens of their own cultural biases.

  • George Grey realised on becoming governor in 1845 that to deal effectively with Māori he needed a good knowledge of their language and traditions. Grey worked with Ngāti Rangiwewehi scholar Te Rangikāheke and other Māori experts, learning the language and collecting manuscripts on mythology, tribal history, proverbs, songs and whakapapa (genealogy).
  • Edward Shortland, an interpreter, police magistrate and ‘sub-protector of aborigines’, published works on Māori language, customs and traditions based on his work at Maketū in the Bay of Plenty and his travels in the South Island in 1843–44.
  • John White was an interpreter and official with the Land Purchase Department and Native Land Court. A collector of Māori traditions from an early age, White was commissioned to write the first ‘official’ ethnological work, The ancient history of the Maori, published in six volumes between 1887 and 1890.
  • Native Land Court judges Francis Dart Fenton, John Alexander Wilson and Walter Edward Gudgeon all wrote their own interpretations of Māori traditions and migration history, based on evidence given to the court.
  • Alexander Shand, a farmer and interpreter on the Chatham Islands worked with Moriori elder Hirawanu Tapu to produce the largest surviving account of Moriori history and traditions.
  • Surveyors S. Percy Smith, Edward Tregear and William Henry Skinner developed a deep knowledge of Māori language and traditions.
  • Elsdon Best worked in the Urewera district between 1895 and 1910 with a road-building team and as a health inspector. Through his relationship with Tūhoe elders such as Tūtakangahau he recorded a large body of local history and traditions.

Ethnologists were particularly intrigued by the question of where Polynesians came from. While debates were continuous, many scholars agreed with Tregear that Māori shared a north Indian ‘Aryan’ ancestry with Europeans. Tregear, Percy Smith and Best were all strongly influenced by research on folklore and by philologists such as Max Müller who argued that human history could be traced by comparing related languages.

Moa-hunter disputes

Geologist Alexander McKay worked with Julius Haast at Moa-bone Point Cave excavation. He disagreed with Haast’s idea that the bones and artefacts unearthed indicated the presence of an early moa-hunting people. McKay published a paper stating that the evidence actually suggested a relatively recent Māori population had killed off the moa. Haast was furious that McKay, who had been one of his paid assistants, would publicly dispute his theories.

Moa bones and moa hunters

In 1847 Walter Mantell carried out what was perhaps New Zealand’s first organised archaeological dig, retrieving moa remains from Waikouaiti in Otago. He carried out a similar dig the same year at Waingongoro in South Taranaki, and in 1852 dug a large number of moa bones, oven stones and stone tools from a North Otago site he named Awamoa.

In the 1860s and 1870s German geologist Julius Haast carried out major excavations of moa remains near the Rakaia River, in the Glenmark swamp and at Moa-bone Point Cave near Sumner. Haast was influenced by English archaeologist John Lubbock’s ideas of ancient cultural phases such as the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age). Haast believed that the flake-stone tools found with moa bones showed that a very ancient primitive people had killed off the moa. He argued that polished stone tools found at the sites were produced by Māori, who he believed were a more advanced people who arrived more recently in New Zealand.

    • George Grey, Polynesian mythology. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1956, p. xi (originally published in 1854). Back

‘Salvage anthropology’ and the birth of professionalism

The Polynesian Society

By the 1880s Pākehā anthropologists were convinced that Māori and other Polynesian peoples were rapidly losing knowledge of their customs and traditions, perhaps even dying out as a ‘race’. In 1892 S. Percy Smith and Edward Tregear founded the Polynesian Society, an organisation dedicated to recording material before it was lost. Other founding members included noted anthropologists Walter Gudgeon, Alexander Shand, W. H. Skinner, H. W. Williams and Elsdon Best. In the early years eminent Māori joined, including Tūreiti Te Heuheu, Hōne Mohi Tāwhai, Mohi Tūrei and Hoani Turi Te Whatahoro, along with the young Māori intellectuals Apirana Ngata and Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa). From the 1860s Māori had been carrying out their own ‘salvage anthropology’ (attempts at preserving cultural information before it is destroyed), with collectors such as Te Whatahoro and Hare Hongi (Henry Stowell) writing down traditions from a wide range of sources.

The early Polynesian Society was basically a Pākehā organisation of amateur anthropologists. Despite this, it had more Māori members, and more Pākehā members who spoke Māori, in its early years than at any later stage in its history. From the 1890s to the 1930s the Journal of the Polynesian Society mainly published articles about language and traditions, with limited coverage of material culture.

Moriori and the 'great fleet'

S. Percy Smith and Elsdon Best were the major promoters of the idea that a non-Polynesian ‘Moriori’ were the first people in New Zealand, later wiped out by the superior Polynesian ‘Māori’ arriving on a great fleet of canoes. This idea was based on the writings of the Ngāti Kahungunu scholar Hoani Turi Te Whatahoro. Te Whatahoro had combined a wide range of distinct tribal narratives to produce a single ‘traditional’ account of the migration to New Zealand.


In the 19th century all the major New Zealand museums were run by natural scientists. In 1903 Augustus Hamilton, whose principal interest was Māori art and artefacts, became director of the Colonial Museum in Wellington. Elsdon Best was employed at the museum from 1910 to work on Māori subjects.

There were further museum appointments of anthropologists, with H. D. Skinner at Otago Museum in 1918 and Roger Duff at Canterbury Museum in 1938. In the 1930s the director of Auckland Museum, zoologist Gilbert Archey, began producing a series of highly respected books on Māori art.

The first trained anthropologist – H. D. Skinner

In the late 19th century European and North American universities began establishing anthropology and archaeology departments. These were set up by scholars who were self-trained pioneers of the disciplines.

New Zealand’s first trained anthropologist was H. D. Skinner. He studied anthropology at Cambridge University in England, enrolling in 1917 after recovering from wounds he received at Gallipoli in the First World War. In 1918 Skinner was appointed to the dual roles of ethnologist at Otago Museum and anthropology lecturer at the University of Otago.

Skinner did not have the skills in Māori language that the early Polynesian Society scholars possessed, but had been trained in systematically analysing material culture. He made extensive studies of Māori and Chatham Island Moriori artefacts, including field trips to the Chathams in 1919 and 1924. He concluded that Moriori and Māori were very closely related Polynesian peoples.

Mākereti Papakura

Mākereti Papakura of Tūhourangi achieved fame in the 1890s and 1900s as ‘Guide Maggie’. She guided tourists around the thermal wonderlands of Rotorua and led concert parties on overseas tours. In later years she lived in England, enrolling in an anthropology course at Oxford in 1926. She based her thesis on her own extensive notes on tribal life. Papakura died suddenly in 1930, before she could present her thesis examination. In 1938 her work was published under the title The old time Maori.

Peter Buck

Peter Buck, also known as Te Rangi Hīroa, of Ngāti Mutunga, originally trained in medicine. His interest in comparative anthropology was stimulated by medical work in Niue and Rarotonga and among Northland Māori. While serving as an officer with the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion during the First World War, Buck measured the physical features of a large number of Māori soldiers. In the 1920s he wrote anthropological papers based on field trips to remote Māori villages and to the Cook Islands. In 1927 Buck was appointed as an anthropologist at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii.

Buck carried out extensive Pacific-wide studies of the Polynesian peoples. His books on Polynesian origins and migrations, particularly Vikings of the sunrise (1938), reached a wide popular audience. While Buck questioned aspects of the accounts of Whatahoro, Smith and Best, he accepted that there had been several waves of Polynesian settlers culminating with the ‘great fleet’.

Professionals, academics and amateurs: 1920s to 1960s

The new archaeology – Teviotdale and Lockerbie

In the 1920s archaeology assumed a greater role in the study of New Zealand’s past. David Teviotdale had worked for years as an amateur archaeologist, but from 1929 was employed as Otago Museum’s field archaeologist. Anthropologist H. D. Skinner made comparative studies of the artefacts Teviotdale unearthed, leading him to reject the idea of one homogenous Māori culture. Instead Skinner proposed a series of culture areas around the country, each with distinct lifestyles, food-gathering methods and approaches to artistic expression.

Teviotdale and Skinner made their excavations without detailed site recordings. Leslie Lockerbie, formerly Teviotdale’s assistant and Skinner’s student, introduced a more methodical approach to archaeology. This included site mapping, recording the exact location of each artefact, and carefully noting the site’s stratigraphy (geological and archaeological layers). In the 1950s Lockerbie pioneered the use of radiocarbon techniques in New Zealand.

Lucky Jim

In January 1939, 13-year-old schoolboy Jim Eyles was living on a farm at Wairau Bar, Marlborough. He made his first dig using a garden spade, finding a hollowed out moa egg, human bones and a bone necklace in the middle of a large burial ground. In March 1942 Eyles was digging an air-raid shelter and found moa eggs, artefacts and human bones. This second Wairau Bar find attracted the attention of Roger Duff of the Canterbury Museum.

The Wairau Bar discoveries

In 1939 a Marlborough schoolboy, Jim Eyles, discovered human and moa remains at Wairau Bar. This turned out to be one of New Zealand’s most important archaeological sites, providing details of lives and burial practices during the earliest period of Polynesian settlement. Roger Duff, another student of Skinner, worked extensively with Eyles at Wairau Bar in the 1940s. Duff produced a theory of two distinct stages of Māori culture; an early hunter-gatherer ‘moa-hunting’ phase and the later phase of ‘classic’ Māori culture.

Academic anthropology emerges, 1940s–1970s

By the 1940s a number of psychologists turned their attention to anthropology. I. L.G. Sutherland, at Canterbury University College, edited the book The Maori people today, published in 1940. Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole, based at Victoria, studied the Māori community at Ōtaki. They were ethnopsychologists, combining the disciplines of psychology and anthropology.

A great ‘British’ anthropologist

New Zealander Raymond Firth studied economics at Auckland University College in the early 1920s, before going to the London School of Economics (LSE). There he switched to anthropology. His PhD thesis was published in 1929 as Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori. Firth went on to conduct a series of important studies of the Polynesian people of Tikopia. He was made anthropology professor at the LSE and became one of the most important anthropologists in the British academic world.

In 1950 the first university anthropology department was established at Auckland, under Ralph Piddington. Departments were set up at the University of Otago (in 1958) and Victoria University of Wellington (in 1965). In 1971 Massey University appointed Hugh Kawharu as professor of anthropology, attached to the Geography Department. Auckland academics took a leading role in the Polynesian Society, particularly in the production of its journal. Jack Golson, archaeologist at the University of Auckland, encouraged the formation of the New Zealand Archaeological Association (NZAA) in 1954. The public service also began employing anthropologists, with the appointment of John Booth as social researcher for the Māori Affairs Department.

The new professional anthropologists and archaeologists were sceptical of the historical accuracy of oral traditions. They also had new tools available, such as radiocarbon dating, allowing investigators to more accurately work out the age of artefacts.

A challenge to orthodoxy

In the 1950s the biggest challenge to orthodox anthropology came from an amateur scholar, Andrew Sharp. His carefully documented 1957 work, Ancient voyagers in the Pacific, argued that Polynesian canoe voyages had largely been accidental, with canoe traditions being devised after arrival in New Zealand. Sharp’s views led to serious debate on the accuracy of canoe traditions and the nature of migrations. In the 1960s and 1970s a range of new techniques were applied to studying canoe migrations, including computer simulations and voyaging by replica canoes. Most anthropologists came to the conclusion that Polynesian voyages had been deliberate and navigated, but Sharp’s critique had stimulated a more scientific approach to migration theories.

Expanding worlds, 1960s to 2000s

From the 1960s anthropologists and archaeologists became more cross-disciplinary. They embraced new technologies, new fields of investigation and a range of scientific techniques to expand methods of gaining knowledge. They also had to adjust to changing relationships with Māori and other indigenous peoples.

Home and away: 1960s–1990s

In the 1960s and 1970s New Zealand anthropologists were carrying out research around the Pacific, including Papua New Guinea, Tokelau, Samoa and the Solomon Islands. Anthropological work on Māori society continued, including Joan Metge’s studies of Māori urban migration and Anne Salmond’s work with East Coast elders Eruera and Amiria Stirling, examining the processes of hui. Many young Māori studying anthropology at this time went on to become community leaders, including Pita Sharples, Ranginui Walker, Hirini Moko Mead and Pat Hōhepa.

In the 1980s Māori academics and students pushed for tino rangatiratanga (self-governance). At both the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington, Māori Studies became a stand-alone department. Some Māori activists declared that non-Māori should stop researching Māori subjects, arguing that only Māori researchers understood the issues involved. Many Pākehā anthropologists withdrew from Māori research, instead looking at other communities, including Pacific Islanders, Indians and Pākehā. By the 1990s Māori opposition to Pākehā anthropologists had somewhat subsided, with some Māori groups calling in anthropologists to assist with Waitangi Tribunal claims.

Regional archaeological studies

From 1969 to 1972 Foss and Helen Leach of the University of Otago conducted New Zealand’s first major regional archaeological study, focusing on Palliser Bay and southern Wairarapa. The study looked in detail at the economy and way of life in prehistoric Wairarapa, concentrating on changes in the region’s ecology and climate. Along with archaeological methods, the Leaches used comparative research on food plants and examined historical and traditional records. This work led to further regional studies, including those by Atholl Anderson in the southern South Island and by Doug Sutton in the Chatham Islands. The regional approach also provided the context for concentrated studies such as Geoff Irwin’s excavation of the Kohika village in the Bay of Plenty.

Historical archaeology

In the late 20th century there was increased interest in the archaeology of sites from the more recent era. These include Māori sites such as gunfighter from the 1820s and 1830s, and Chinese gold-mining settlements in the Otago region, early whaling stations on Banks Peninsula and a range of European sites around the country. Archaeology often reveals details of everyday life that are not recorded in historical accounts.

Archaeology and development

In 1975 the Historic Places Act was amended to protect all archaeological sites, so sites could now only be modified or destroyed with the permission of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (which became Heritage New Zealand in 2014). The trust was given the power to require that a development would only receive consent to proceed if an archaeological investigation was carried out first.

New ways of looking at the past

Anthropology and archaeology have adopted many new methods of investigation. Techniques such as aerial photography and ground-penetrating radar have allowed the detection and investigation of archaeological sites without intrusive digging. Lisa Matisoo-Smith’s work on the DNA of kiore (Polynesian rats) and chicken bones has helped trace the migrations of Polynesian ancestors through the Pacific. Pollen analysis by palaeoecologists (who study fossilised plants and animals to understand past ecologies) has helped archaeologists determine when the major periods of forest clearance first began. Examination of chemical isotopes in prehistoric skeletons has given new clues to the diet and mobility of New Zealand’s earliest people.

Novel approaches to an old debate

In 1996 Richard Holdaway’s work on rat bones suggested rats had arrived in New Zealand as long as 2,000 years ago, probably left by humans who did not settle. More recent studies, including re-examination of radiocarbon dating and examination of rat-gnawed seeds, indicated rats and humans arrived only around 1200–1350 AD. Work on pollen analysis and bird extinctions supports this recent date of human arrival, but the debate continues.

Anthropologists and archaeologists in the early 2000s

While anthropology graduates went into a wide range of professions, anthropology itself remained largely a university-based discipline in the early 2000s. Archaeologists were also based in universities and museums, but also worked for Heritage New Zealand and the Department of Conservation. A number of private firms employ archaeologists to carry out consulting and research work for developers. In the 2010s Heritage New Zealand estimated that 95% of archaeological digs in New Zealand were the result of consent procedures for developments.

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How to cite this page: Peter Clayworth, 'Anthropology and archaeology', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Peter Clayworth, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014