Vaughan Yarwood

Written in blood

How a chance discovery shook our notions of the past

Written by       Photographed by Vaughan Yarwood

At about midday on 23 October 2004, young Wairarapa local Sam Tobin rounded up his dogs, Gomez and Bertie, and took a wander down to the nearby Ruamahanga River. Having run high for days, the river had at last fallen and he was eager to see what changes the recent spring floods had wrought. The family farm at Pukio, 15 km southeast of Featherston, bordered the Ruamahanga and a purpose-built four-metre-high flood bank set back 30 or 40 paces from the water testified to its flood-prone nature. Sixteen-year-old Tobin had known the tree-fringed river to keep to its bed in only one year out of the 11 he had lived on the farm, its shoals and sandy margins endlessly dredged and reworked by the big-muscled seasonal flood.

Stepping out onto a broad shoulder of river sand, studded with stone chip, he noticed what he took to be the upper surface of a whitish rock lit by the noonday sun. Getting closer he saw that it was bone. Such a thing was not uncommon hereabouts—he had often come across fragments, and even complete skulls, of cows and sheep. But as he scraped aside the stones and prised the object free, he realised with a shock that he held in his hands a human skull, discoloured with age, and bleached above and behind the right eye socket where it had lain exposed. There were several holes, one of them in the right temple, perhaps suggesting a violent death.

Tobin replaced the skull and hurried home to tell his mother what the Ruamahanga had delivered to their doorstep. It would prove to be a spectacular find; setting in motion an investigation that would drag on for years and draw in some of the country’s most respected specialists, stirring heated controversy across the country and making headlines on the other side of the world. The debate that ensued challenged our most firmly held assertions of human settlement in New Zealand.

[Chapter Break]

The police were called, but despite a thorough search they could find nothing that might shed light on the identity of the skull, or on the circumstances of its sudden appearance on a secluded bank of the Ruamahanga.

The skull was taken north to be examined by forensic pathologists Dr Rex Ferris and Dr Tim Koelmeyer at Auckland Hospital. Despite being hampered by its damaged and incomplete condition—the jawbone and lower left portion of the cranium were missing—Ferris and Koelmeyer determined that the skull was that of an adult female. Furthermore, most probably of Caucasian origin and that the deterioration of the bone placed the time of death “beyond living memory”. They conjectured that the holes in the skull, each the size of a 10 cent piece, might represent old injuries, and that one of the perforations looked to have been caused by “ancient buckshot”.

Wellington-based forensic anthro-pologist Dr Robin Watt also examined the skull. He concurred with his northern colleagues, stating in his report that it was “probably that of a female, aged about 40-45 years, and probably of European origin”.

Sam Tobin returns to the Ruamahanga riverbank where 2004’s spring floods revealed the skull. The true significance of his find became apparent only when forensic investigations, carbon dating and genetic fingerprinting were pieced together into what appeared to be an impossible picture.
Sam Tobin returns to the Ruamahanga riverbank where 2004’s spring floods revealed the skull. The true significance of his find became apparent only when forensic investigations, carbon dating and genetic fingerprinting were pieced together into what appeared to be an impossible picture.

The experts agreed, and believing that it could be the remains of an old farm burial, Dr Watt recommended radio carbon dating to make sure it wasn’t a recent death. A sample of bone from the upper part of the skull was duly sent to the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) in Lower Hutt, and a little over three weeks later the result from GNS’s Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory came back. The news was a bombshell.

Cutting through the bewildering complexity of the scientific analysis was a single line, under the heading “Radiocarbon Calibration Report”, which announced an electrifying conclusion. It read: “Conventional radiocarbon age 296 ± 35 years BP”.

If the lab had got its science right, the skull that Sam Tobin had lifted from the sand was 300 or more years old (BP meaning before 1950—see sidebar p40). While a 300-year old skull wasn’t that unusual, three independent experts had suggested that the skull was a European female. And that raised the tantalising possibility of a white woman having walked among Maori in the Wairarapa long before the arrival of Captain James Cook; perhaps even before the very first recorded European contact—the fleeting visit of the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642.

It seemed a preposterous idea. No Northern hemisphere ships were known to have sailed in these waters before Tasman’s and according to records there wasn’t another until Cook’s Endeavour. The Portuguese voyager Ferdinand Magellan had rounded South America and burst into the Pacific in 1520, just six years after its discovery by Europeans, but his route unfolded well to the north of Tahiti and the Marshall Islands. Besides, there is no record of any women among the 240 crew aboard Magellan’s five tiny ships. The same held true with later sixteenth and early seventeenth century Pacific voyages, including those of Francis Drake and Luis Váez de Torres.


The only exception was a doomed Spanish colonising venture which sailed from Peru in June 1595 for the Solomon Islands under the command of Alvaro de Mendaña. Two of Mendaña’s vessels fetched up at Ndeni in the Santa Cruz group. The third is known to have reached San Cristobal in the Solomons—excavations in 1971 uncovered the remains of the failed Spanish settlements where men, women and children had battled the odds for a year or more before succumbing to death.

Two centuries were to pass before the first two white women arrived in New Zealand in 1806—Kathleen Hagerty and Charlotte Edgar, both convicts who had escaped from the New South Wales colony. But what if a chance landfall had delivered someone—a stowaway perhaps—to these wild South Pacific shores much earlier?

Could a Spanish or Portuguese trader, disabled by a storm while rounding Cape Horn, have been pushed by wind and currents eastward beyond all familiar waters and under the belly of Australia until it came to rest against the barrier of Aotearoa?

Implausible, perhaps, but the skull, resting mute and grimy with Ruamahanga sediment in Aratoi Museum, could be the kind of concrete evidence that demanded such a drastic re-evaluation of history.

[Chapter Break]

It took a surprisingly long time before the age of the skull was made public. The Masterton coroner, Jock Kershaw, was briefed by police on the findings of the investigation in September, 2005, and there the matter rested. The police had discharged their responsibilities. A ballistics specialist at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research had earlier ruled out gunshot injury on the grounds that the bone had no bevelling or radiating fractures and no visible lead residue. With no crime indicated, and given a time frame that placed the skull beyond living memory, there was no need to persevere—no matter how frustratingly incomplete the investigation remained. What was initially reported as a suspicious death had turned out to be a relic.

The inquest remained in legal suspension for a further 34 months, with the file—which the police, with a suitable sense of theatre, had named Operation Yorick—lying undisturbed in a filing cabinet. There was little pressure to do more and Kershaw was confident that a satisfactory resolution of the death was unlikely. Perhaps more tellingly, as he later confessed, the case was “a good one to go out on”. Restructuring of the coronial system meant that Kershaw’s coronial duties would be at an end within months.

As it was, his last responsibility as coroner at Masterton was not concluded until August 1, 2008 when he put his name to the coronial report on the Ruamahanga skull, the inquest itself having ended just 14 days earlier. The report itself, of necessity, left most doors open. “What do we know about this unfortunate death?”, Kershaw wrote. “The answer is very little. We do not even have a name.”

Kershaw summarised the findings as to the likely ethnicity of the deceased and the approximate age of the skull, as determined by the radiocarbon analysis. They were decidedly at odds with the observations supplied on request by the archivist for the Masterton District Council, Gareth Winter, on European settlement in the Wairarapa. The archivist stated that to the best of his knowledge permanent European settlement of the area began shortly after the arrival of New Zealand Company settlers in Wellington in 1840, with the arrival of pastoralists in South Wairarapa in 1844.

Rarely is an object of forensic investigation found in such isolation. There were no associated bones or debris and, washed far from its original resting place, it offered no geographical or archaeological context. A scene examination could yield nothing. The investigation had to focus on the single relic—it’s dimensions, age and genetic structure.
Rarely is an object of forensic investigation found in such isolation. There were no associated bones or debris and, washed far from its original resting place, it offered no geographical or archaeological context. A scene examination could yield nothing. The investigation had to focus on the single relic—it’s dimensions, age and genetic structure.

Faced with what appeared to be a difference of more than a century between the two dates, the coroner could do little else, apart from stating the obvious—a death had occurred. The person was likely female, possibly of European descent and aged between 40 and 45. The date, time and place of death could not be ascertained in a way which would satisfy both the hard evidence and accepted history.

The deliberately vague language served only to provoke wild conjecture when the story broke. And it broke sooner and with more force than anyone could have expected—the very next day, in fact—with the Dominion Post newspaper announcing the discovery of an ancient female skull; a European “Jane Doe” who died “300 years ago, possibly violently”.

Other papers followed suit and academics added their voices to the debate, most of them dampening down the speculation. Professor Richard Hill of Victoria University suggested that anyone living in what is now Featherston in the mid-18th century would have been obliged to travel to Indonesia to find a woman of European descent. European powers had interests in the wider region by the 1740s, noted Massey University historian James Watson, but economic priorities directed their attention to places such as Indonesia, Micronesia and China, not Featherston. “It would be unusual to be this far south—unprecedented,” he said.


Professor Kerry Howe, also of Massey University, was equally dismissive, pointing out that there was no evidence for European settlement until the late 18th century, though conspiracy theorists would be “delighted” at the prospect of contrary evidence.

However, none of the academics seemed inclined to provide an alternative explanation that satisfied the contrary evidence, other than the unspoken suggestion that the scientists were somehow mistaken, and the skull must be Maori. The certainty of their rebuttals was also unwarranted. There were precedents for just such an overthrow of academic consensus regarding the past, and recent ones at that. One of the most dramatic—the discovery of a skull in the shallows of the Columbia River, near Kennewick, in the northwestern United States in 1996—sent a bushfire through the world of prehistory. Until the unearthing of 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man, researchers thought they had something approaching the true picture of early migration patterns across North America. The wholly unexpected evidence of one solitary individual forced a rethink, not only of the timing and paths of settlement but also of the origin of the settlers.

Could Ruamahanga Woman do the same for New Zealand?

[Chapter Break]

Much of the inquiry hinged on the ethnicity of the skull which had only been determined using anatomical metrics—measurements that estimated ethnicity according to defining dimensions and proportions of the skull. Given that a large portion of the cranium was missing, the forensic anthropologist Robin Watt could only suggest that it was “probably European”. To be more certain, analysis would have to peer into the building blocks of life itself.

Enter Leon Huynen, a research scientist working with Professor David Lambert’s Molecular Evolution group at Massey University’s Institute of Molecular BioSciences on Auckland’s North Shore. One of only a handful of ancient-DNA specialists in the country, his work in recent years has focused on speciation in moa and on the differing characteristics, or phenotypes, such as feather colour, which arose from a given set of moa genes. For some time, though, Huynen had been wanting to work with human DNA.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the transmitter of genetic material from parent to offspring and, with luck, enough of the right sort might be extracted from bone to get a conclusive proof about its origin. The target for DNA testing is mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Unlike nuclear DNA, mtDNA is only inherited through the female line, and has segments known as hypervariable regions (HVRs), which mutate rapidly over generations. For this reason it is often used for evolutionary and population analysis.

By examining mtDNA, the differences between groups of people become much clearer, and over the years it has altered enough to allow human migrations to be traced. A seminal 1987 study, for example, suggested that all mtDNA in contemporary humans stem from a common matrilineal ancestor (the “mitochondrial Eve”), who lived in Africa some 140,000 years ago.

But extracting information from DNA is a tricky business. “Typically ancient DNA is very fragmented, so you go for the parts that are most informative,” Huynen told me. In the case of the Ruamahanga skull, he targeted some 440 nucleotide bases from hypervariable regions 1 and 2 (HVR-1, HVR-2). These bases were then amplified (copied exponentially) through a molecular technique called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

Amplified mitochondrial DNA is checked by gel electrophoresis, purified and sent to Massey’s Palmerston North labs for sequencing to determine the order of the nucleotide bases.
Amplified mitochondrial DNA is checked by gel electrophoresis, purified and sent to Massey’s Palmerston North labs for sequencing to determine the order of the nucleotide bases.

Amplification by PCR, which uses an enzyme called DNA polymerase to create the copies, has revolutionised genetic research since its discovery in the early 1980s and is fundamental to the work done at the Institute of Molecular BioSciences. The method now enables the routine analysis of DNA quantities weighing less than a millionth of a billionth of a gram.

The enzyme itself is derived from a heat-tolerant bacterium similar to those that thrive in the hot pools at Rotorua. Huynen’s thermophilic bacterium, Thermus aquaticus, is more travelled—it comes from Yellowstone National Park in the United States.

After amplification and checking, the mtDNA copies are sent to Massey’s Palmerston North labs for sequencing to determine the order of the nucleotide bases.

When the first batch of Ruamahanga skull sequences came back the results were conclusive. The mitochondrial haplotype, it turned out, was classed as H, a group that originated from Europe. The skull was not Maori.

Mitochondrial molecules had spoken, science had triumphed over common sense and now the historical record had to account for a European woman roaming the banks of the Ruamahanga River centuries before the first record of white women anywhere in New Zealand.

[Chapter Break]

Standard histories have little to offer by way of explanation. After Abel Janszoon Tasman departed these shores in January 1643, no other European visited New Zealand until James Cook made landfall on 6 October 1769.

But there is nothing like the presence of a 300-year old caucasian skull to oblige us to entertain the possibilities.

For instance, it is not entirely impossible that Europeans could have washed ashore somewhere between Tasman and Cook. Tests carried out by an Australian National University researcher in 1977 and 1981, involving sealed bottles dropped in Drake Passage south of Cape Horn, proved that the current alone was capable of carrying them prodigious distances. One washed ashore at Rakaia in the South Island 32 months later, while another reached Easter Island after more than six years afloat. A high-sided vessel from the age of sail, even if dismasted, would benefit from the full effect of those prevailing currents and also the strong, unceasing westerly winds that blow in southern latitudes. It might reasonably be expected to drift at a much faster rate. As most such trading voyages were well provisioned, there would be at least a remote chance of one or more survivors reaching Aotearoa, or remains washing ashore.

At the inquest, the archivist for Masterton District Council, Gareth Winter, pointed to anecdotal evidence of Europeans in the area before Cook. In 1777, on his fourth and last voyage to New Zealand, Cook had questioned Tiarooa, a young chief from Queen Charlotte Sound, on whether any other European vessels had visited the area. Yes, said Tiarooa, a ship had put in at Tetara-wette (near Wellington) a few years before Cook’s first voyage, and its captain had taken a Maori wife.

As Winter noted: “This is probably the genesis of a famous Wairarapa story regarding the wreck of a ship captained by a man called Rongotute.” According to legend, the ship was cast ashore at Kawakawa, near Cape Palliser.

In 1848 the missionary and writer Richard Taylor set down an account of the Rongotute’s shipwreck on the cape in which local Maori were said to have killed and eaten the crew. Subsequently he added that shortly afterwards a fatal epidemic had broken out.

Searches of the records have failed to uncover any evidence of a ship going missing in New Zealand waters in that time, and yet the story has refused to go away. In his 1876 volume Life and times of Patuone, Charles Davis noted “a few dates that may be useful to the reader”, including: “1740 Visit of ship to North Island, commanded by Rongotute”. Davis ascribed the fact to “Maori tradition”.

Again citing Maori tradition, James Buller pushed that date back even further in his 1878 book Forty Years in New Zealand, writing of the “arrival of a ship, commanded by one Rongotute, about 1640”. Ten years later, John White, in Ancient History of the Maori, added that Maori took patterned dinner plates from Rongotute’s ship, wearing broken pieces of it as breast ornaments in place of greenstone tiki. Stating that it was the first time that Maori had seen iron, he implied that the wreck had preceded Cook.

Drawn in 1843 by Samuel Charles Brees (Chief Surveyor to the New Zealand Company which undertook settlement of the Wellington region), this pioneering image of first settlement is the earliest depiction of the Ruamahanga plains. The presence of a European female some 150 years earlier would have been unfathomable.
Drawn in 1843 by Samuel Charles Brees (Chief Surveyor to the New Zealand Company which undertook settlement of the Wellington region), this pioneering image of first settlement is the earliest depiction of the Ruamahanga plains. The presence of a European female some 150 years earlier would have been unfathomable.

In his Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century, ethnologist Stephenson Percy Smith claimed that invading Nga Puhi learned from prisoners of the wreck at Wairarapa of Rongotute and of the resulting epidemic—though he fixed the date of the contagion as 1782 or 1783.

The nineteenth century scribe Te Whatahoro told investigators a different version, in which three of the crew had survived, and “gone up the east coast”.

One theory for the contradictions in these accounts is that, based as they are on Maori oral traditions, they reflect the turmoil of the early years of cultural contact—the “pervasive disruptions the Pakeha arrival brought to Maori society”, in the words of historian Rhys Richards—in which Maori were weakened by disease and displaced by inter-tribal musket warfare. As a result of these disruptions, some stories mutated or became fragmented. Yet they continue to resonate.

Even today, images readily spring to mind: a vessel is caught on the foul ground off Te Kawakawa and ripped apart by submerged rocks and a handful of survivors, perhaps including the mysterious Rongotute, stumble ashore through the surf and over an arc of black sand toward the forested slopes of the Aorangi mountains, mouthing oaths and imprecations in who knows what strange tongue as they sought refuge in the mist-shrouded heights from pursuing Maori. Or, seeing their fellow mariners set upon and hacked to death in the foam, they put to sea in a ship’s boat and desperately make their way up the coast to safety.

But in raising this conjecture regarding the Ruamahanga skull we are faced once more with that insurmountable hurdle—the almost universal absence of women aboard such vessels.

As Winter noted, even if the tales of Rongotute were true, they would be unhelpful when it came to explaining the Ruamahanga skull. “A European male in the Wairarapa would be hard enough to explain,” he said. “A female is that much more difficult.” And, as Huynen’s DNA analysis showed, it was the presence of a European woman, not merely the daughter of some chance union between a sailor and a local Maori that must be explained.

If Ruamahanga Woman was indeed alive in the lower North Island in the period pinpointed by the radiocarbon dating, she did not time her arrival well.

By all accounts, life for anyone in southern Wairarapa would have been difficult three centuries ago, and indescribably harsh for a white woman. Only by falling under the protection of local Maori would she have stood any chance of survival. Even so, her life would have been precarious and, almost certainly, short.

Three hundred years ago, the coastal settlements of Palliser Bay were in decline, with changing climate, deforestation and dwindling sources of seafood making life on the coast marginal. The focus of habitation therefore shifted to the alluvial plains of the Ruamahanga River valley and especially to the region of Lake Onoke and Lake Wairarapa where the newly arrived Ngati Kahungunu, originally from Poverty Bay, settled. Their pa sites and urupa (burial grounds) still line the river’s lower reaches.

The Little Ice Age, which began around 1600, was well under way and the growing of all Pacific Island crops had become difficult in the extreme. The white woman, and her Maori protectors, would have been forced to rely largely on fern roots, eels from the lower lakes and whatever birds and fruit the forest could supply.

On the horizon lay the depredations of Te Rauparaha and of Ngapuhi, Ngati Whatua and Ngati Toa war parties. Eventually, social upheaval would lead to an exodus of local Maori until by 1835 no more than a hundred remained in southern Wairarapa.

Was the survival of a middle-aged, culturally isolated European woman at all likely in such circumstances? And what were the chances of such a thing going unrecorded in Maori oral history? Unlike the shapeshifting accounts of Rongotute, there was not even the kernel of a story regarding what would have been the much more remarkable arrival of a white woman.

Richards himself examined at length other shadowy hints of early European contact, including a “Spanish helmet” found in Wellington Harbour, stories about a mysterious Captain Stivers and fanciful interpretations of early cartography. His conclusion: only the Rongotute story had any credibility.

Of the many revisionist theories Richards wrote: “the accumulation of more and more weak speculation does not give them more strength but, on the contrary, may expose their common weaknesses.”

What the theories lacked was context.

Retired archaeology professor Dr Foss Leach undertook the country’s largest archaeological programme—a 1700 sq km survey in Wairarapa in the 1970s—and is well qualified to comment on the art of interrogating the land. And he made this very point when speculation over the Ruamahanga skull’s origins first started. “It is most unusual to radiocarbon date human remains that have no clear provenance,” he said, “without some very good reason to do so.”

The Masterton police obviously had their own very good reason for radiocarbon dating, but Leach’s point about the need for evidence tying the skull to a place in time was a good one. Archaeologists at the Columbia River site had found some 350 additional pieces of bone—almost a complete skeleton—which proved that Kennewick Man had died locally. Where, he asked, was the information on the archaeological or stratigraphic associations of the Ruamahanga find? Without that it was just a blank slate, a skull in the sand.

Such fragmentary human remains often come to light, especially over the summer when bemused holiday makers come across freshly exposed remains in out of the way places. Just weeks before Jock Kershaw released his inquest findings, a pre-European skull had been found on the roadside near the Hokianga township of Opononi and handed over to local iwi for burial.

Watt told me of one such skull that had been passed on to him years ago. Examining it under various lighting he was surprised to discover a catalogue number painted on the bone. It had likely been a study skull, brought out years earlier to enliven someone’s anatomy classes. There had been dozens of them knocking about the country before the Second World War, he said, many sourced from India.

Perhaps the riddle of the skull had a straightforward solution after all: that Ruamahanga Woman, whoever she was, had also been at the service of science. But Indian? No, she was undisputedly European. And even if the study skull hypothesis conveniently removes the requirement for a re-write of history, surely the presence of one in the Ruamahanga River simply presents another enigma?

Flotsam of an ancient shipwreck, maiden of Rongotute, anatomical yardstick or elaborate hoax? The only proof might lie in a fragment of inscribed bone, or other skeletal remains still buried beneath the earth in the upper Ruamahanga, or even now being gently carried south by the river toward Lake Onoke, the fresh water eye of Maui’s fish.