Our islands were the finish line for the longest and closest race in human history. A hundred thousand years and more out of Africa, the modern human odyssey of global colonisation ended when the inheritors of two different maritime technologies reached these shores. And the contestants reached the line just 350 years apart, a veritable photo-finish in geological and evolutionary time.
The competitors in the human race to Aotearoa/New Zealand started out in opposite directions. It was a handicap race as well, with the longest head start in history. Very early on in the story of modern humans, maybe 100,000 years ago, ancestors of the first group left Suez and walked east, right across Asia. When they were finally confronted by the Pacific, they spread along its shores, heading first, so far as we know, south and east. Their advance did not stop until people were walking on Bondi Beach and watching birds of paradise in New Guinea. Before their odyssey ended, and 50,000 years after their ancestors left Suez, these travellers had made the first truly deep water crossing in history, across the Timor Sea. As people spread across the driest continent, their fi res and appetites changed Australia’s environment, fauna, and flora forever. But the sea barrier of the Tasman was too wide to cross with their technology, so the travels and the changes stopped—for the moment—on its western shores.
Nearly 40,000 years after people first camped in Kakadu, and as the most recent Ice Age waned and the great ice sheets of Canada and Scandinavia melted, a final pedestrian human occupation of new territory heralded the end of the American wilderness. Within the geological blink of an eye, people advanced across the dry land of Beringia—now the shallow Bering Sea—passed down the opening corridor between the massive Rockies and Laurentide ice sheets and walked from Alberta to Tierra del Fuego. The mammoths, mastodonts, sabrecats, lions, cheetahs, horses, camels, giant sloths, and other naïve fauna ebbed away. By 10,000 years ago, all were gone, and people were the top predators in a depauperate New World. Europeans have always regarded the cultural, altered landscapes they wrested from the native Americans as a primeval world. In truth, the “American wilderness” that greeted French voyageurs, Hudson Bay Company trappers, and Lewis and Clark was a chimera; the real wilderness was long gone.
Wait another 4000 years. The world is warmer and more benign than it has been any time in the previous 100 millennia. A group of fishers at the western limb of the Pacific human arc that spreads from Australia to Patagonia invents the sail, and learns to harvest the wind’s power. With lateen sails on their outrigger and double-hulled vessels they venture offshore. Now, they can travel farther, faster, and safer than almost anyone else, and they become masters of the Pacific’s vastness. These voyagers, the founders of the Austronesian peoples, spread out and down along the already occupied coasts of South East Asia, along New Guinea’s northern coast, meeting and consorting with the descendants of the first migrants, until in the Solomon Islands they were at the end of a springboard to the Pacific. From the Solomons they crossed and recrossed the vast open waters between braids of islands, peopling almost 25 per cent of the globe within just a couple of thousand years. They settled on the scattered shards of land, exploited the virgin resources, changed the landscapes, and made the Pacific their own. By the time William of Normandy was listing his English conquests in the Domesday Book, their travels had taken them from the Straits of Formosa to Easter Island (and probably South America, too), and north to Hawaii and south to the southern Cooks.
The other group destined to make our history invented their own sails, probably in or about the Nile valley and eastern Mediterranean, at about the same time as their distant cousins to the east. Gradually, these western sailors ventured along the coasts of the inland sea and then through its narrow western portal, west to the Canary Islands, and north to the Baltic and beyond. Still others went east, down the chute of the Red Sea and out into the Indian Ocean, maybe even all the way around Africa and home again past the Pillars of Hercules. Both these traditions established their own patterns of discovery, occupation, and trade. Arabia, India, and East Africa came into the orbit, and developed their own ways of navigation, based largely on the lateen sail, and linked eventually with square-sailed navigators coming from eastern Asia. Southern offshoots of the lateen-tradition reached the north and west of Australia, and initiated a new era of change, wrought largely by the dingo, but that still did not reach beyond the Tasman’s western shores.
Having experimented and explored their abilities, the exponents of eastern and western sailing technologies then shrank the remaining untrodden planetary wildernesses to the South Pacific and remote, inhospitable Antarctica itself. After a brief pause, as if to catch breath before the final effort, people from the Pacific and from Europe set out to conquer the final frontier. And the largest habitable land on that frontier was Aotearoa/New Zealand.
The final thrusts of this global pincer movement were made from the north-east and south-west. First, about AD 1290, a bare 50 years before the Black Death brought Europe to its knees, people from the southern Cook Islands established permanent settlements here. That epochal event ended forever the supply of significant, habitable, places on the planet where humans had not diverted life’s evolutionary stream, and nutrient flows to their own ends. It was, literally, the end of the “natural” world.
And the Polynesian settlers nearly met their competition head on. Only a hundred years after people began living at Wairau Bar, near Blenheim, an unparalleled, concentrated burst of technological innovation and fervour for exploration and gain began on the other side of the world. Western Europeans spread rapidly and suddenly—within a span of 150 years—west, south, and east. They entered the Pacific through its three easiest doors: Magellan’s Straits, across the swamps and mountains of the Darien at America’s waist, and down the old Austronesian track from Asia. By the early 17th century, the annual bullion runs of the Spanish “Manila” galleons were taking spoils from the American colonies west from Acapulco, Dutch and English ships were coasting western Australia, and Drake was surprising—and upsetting—Spanish shipping off Peru and Panama.
Then, just before Christmas 1642, the pincers closed, in a meeting off Golden Bay that was marked by mutual xenophobia and misunderstanding. The near synchronicity of the arrivals is stunning, but much had happened here in the bare 350 years between Polynesian colonisation and European contact. The New Zealand megafauna and much of its most productive vegetation had gone forever. The first colonists had, in that brief period of history, by necessity come to terms with life “the morning after” in the coolest and least productive environment they ever settled.
Archaeology is, ultimately, the scientific and sociological plotting of the progress of modern humans from Africa to Aotearoa/New Zealand. The many diversions and delays while technology caught up with ambition and temptation are just embellishments of the record, until history takes up the human tale. The growth of wealth and power in Europe, and of trans-oceanic transport on a comparative shoestring in the Pacific, allowed humans to overcome, eventually, all geographic barriers. The Americas not only acted as entrepôts, they provided the treasure that was both goal and resource for European expansion, and a staple foodstuff for the final Polynesian voyagers. The South American sweet potato was the final horticultural innovation for the eastern migrants. Brought back across the ocean, it then fed New Guinean highlanders as well as Peruvians; a gift from the occupants of the New World to the oldest refugees of the Old.
For humans, the 2000 km of ocean around Aotearoa/New Zealand proved to be the most durable geographic barrier of all. It took almost 50,000 years from the first footprints on Bondi until human eyes could gaze out west across the Tasman Sea. The monumental flanking assaults on the final wilderness were over.
But once Aotearoa/New Zealand’s isolation had ended, there were no more wildernesses, just different patterns of human involvement with different environments. So, we have the privilege of being closest in time to the final true pioneers, and the final example of an untouched world. We should cherish and honour both heritages, as joint stewards and near-simultaneous discoverers—and exploiters—of the last wilderness.
And for the human side, mostly we do. But often more in the breach than the observance. Take, for instance, the oldest substantial dwelling identified so far in the South Island. An East Polynesian-style house stood on the lowest terrace north of the Rakaia River mouth. The land around it is now a 20 ha paddock and camp ground, but when it was occupied the moa ovens on the terrace above were fresh. Its postholes were revealed only when the foundations were being prepared for a new “amenities” building. Construction continued even as the site was excavated. Yes, we actually, knowingly, built a dunny over the remains of our oldest building. You could ask for no more potent symbol for how we, as a country, really feel about our own past in this new land.
But, cultural disasters such as this, and the impending loss to “development” of the 700-year-old cultural landscape at Ocean Beach, near Hastings, are nothing to the neglect and mistreatment suffered by the remains of the last world wilderness. Even learned institutions demean it by trivialisation, and we uniformly despise it when it looks like getting in the way of development.
The remains of our pre-human past and the sites where they have been preserved enjoy no specific protection in law, and precious little in the public psyche. We have an insatiable appetite for news of new discoveries, but for the moment only, for the post-weather “odd spot” on TV news, and for the exotic. There is little interest in the meaning and significance of the record of our recent past, and little understanding yet of its relevance to the here-and-now, even amongst ecologists. Hence, the record itself is unprotected, except for the scant umbrella for sites provided by some provisions of the Resource Management Act. The only direct legal barrier to overt exploitation has been one provision of the Antiquities Act. And that sometimes fails spectacularly, as a few years ago when a major collection of moa remains was exported without permit and auctioned openly in London, with no repercussions there, or here.
The richest recent fossil record in the world—the extraordinarily well-preserved remains of the last wilderness—is therefore in the hands of landowners. Some—the interested few—take great care of the heritage in their hands; most others would if they knew its value; a few actively destroy it to avoid delays in getting returns on investment. While even institutions such as museums and universities emphasise the trivial and sensational and avoid engaging with the values of our older natural heritage, it is unlikely that landowners will get the support they, and the sites they hold in trust, deserve.
Even the Department of Conservation, which ministers to the country’s largest estates and the greatest number and variety of sites and resources, still lacks the capacity to understand and conserve the sources of information that should underpin their management and restoration programmes. There is empathy for that record in the conservancies, and some are trying to protect the more important sites. There is little or no support from the centre. It would be much easier to get funds to do even the basics, if the sites contained McCahons. Every art gallery has its catalogue but there is no inventory of Quaternary fossil sites or their values here. We simply do not know what we, and the world, are losing, but judging by the tip of this particular iceberg, it is a lot.
Quite simply, these sites and the materials such as bones and other fossils and ancient DNA itself, are our only sources of hard information on what happens when climates change, and New Zealand’s animals and plants and ecosystems have to live in warmer or cooler climates.
They are the sources, too, of a rapidly expanding body of information on the way the ecosystems themselves worked, and how they have changed with the arrival of humans on the planet and in Aotearoa/New Zealand itself. Dead bones hold information on environmental temperature, annual and seasonal rainfall, the rate that nutrients such as nitrogen flowed through ecosystems, and the sources of the nutrients themselves.
Here are whole encyclopaedias of the past. Pages are being torn from those books daily. Whole volumes are being discarded annually, by well-meaning professionals in other fields, learned institutions, as well as by developers, drainage contractors, and feral goats and possums. If the human inhabitants of Aotearoa/New Zealand, who arrived at its front door almost at the same time, want really to come to terms with their home and to transform the pioneering acquisitiveness of the past (and present) into a mature stewardship of the land, they have to begin by cherishing and understanding the non-human part of the land’s recent past.
Regional and national government will have to accept that fossil bones and the swamps and caves they have been archived in are not just curiosities to hoard and to gawk at, but vital links in our chain of being, from the amazing advances of the past, to a fully sustainable future.