The Maori history in New Zealand and a tale of Resistance to New Findings

I am reading Atholl Anderson’s remarkable book, “Tangata Whenua” on Maori history (you can also read the first two chapters to get an idea here). Writing on this book on the history of Maori arrival in New Zealand, there was this news item in Stuff today where they wrote (the full text here)

“Exiled? You might have assumed that colonisation was about sending your best and brightest to a new land but it is more likely that New Zealand was settled by people exiled from central east Polynesia after strife over land or food.

Nor is there archaeological evidence that they ever went back the other way. Anderson has dismantled the story of the Polynesians as legendary seafarers. He argues that their sail technology was not as advanced as many assumed. Nor is there evidence that Polynesian voyages reached South America — pre-Columbian Americans probably sailed the other way, to Easter Island.

That myth of Polynesian sailors as skilled and heroic, on a par with Europeans. The Vikings of the Sunrise, as someone called them. Is that not the case?

Anderson makes a distinction. They were perhaps more heroic than many think, “because if you don’t have very competent seafaring technology and yet you still pack everybody you know into a canoe and set off for some place you may or may not find, it’s certainly heroic but not necessarily skilful”.

It is fair to say his view is controversial “because most people don’t want to accept that argument. They prefer to accept the traditionalist argument that arose mainly in the late 19th century as a result of the establishment of the Polynesian Society, heavily backed by people like Elsdon Best, Percy Smith, Peter Buck and others who had a great investment in the idea that the Polynesian ancestors were sailors of an heroic mould with highly competent marine technology.”

But the traditionalist argument depends on one very strange idea. It implies that Maori came here with technology they subsequently lost.

“It doesn’t make sense. In New Zealand you needed even more competent technology than you needed to sail in the trade winds of the tropics, technology that enabled you to sail across the wind or into the wind. Why would you ever get rid of it?”

There are “fairly polite” disagreements in academia over these matters. But Anderson sounds a little more annoyed when it is pointed out that even Te Ara, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s online encyclopaedia, has not come around to his way of thinking.

Two likely errors leap out from Te Ara’s pages on the settlement of New Zealand. One, that Polynesians sailed to South America. Two, that Polynesians almost certainly made the return voyage from New Zealand.

Remember that Te Ara is the state-funded website of New Zealand history and culture. Have its historians not caught up?

“It’s not that they haven’t caught up,” Anderson says. “They don’t want to acknowledge [it]. The people who write for Te Ara are well aware that I’ve been making this argument for the last 17 years and have published a number of papers on it. I find that most of my colleagues who were persuaded otherwise before I argued that it was different are still not persuaded or if they are, they won’t say so.”

What does the Ministry of Culture and Heritage say in response?

“Te Ara’s entry on first settlement was originally written some years ago and we will certainly consider revisions in light of new research,” Chief Historian and Manager of Heritage Content, Neill Atkinson, says by email. “We regularly do this across Te Ara’s wide ranging content and welcome assistance from experts like Atholl Anderson, who is the author of the most recently published synthesis of research in this area (i.e. the relevant chapters in Tangata Whenua).”

Brings out the age old tussle between not willing to accept the new.

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in:

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