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New insights into New Zealand’s first people

Monday 6 April 2009

New insights into the health and lives of New Zealand’s first people

Initial findings from a University of Otago-led analysis of the koiwi tangata (human remains) of some of the earliest Polynesians to settle New Zealand are shedding new light on their health - including the first evidence of gout among ancient Maori.

The Rangitane iwi tupuna (ancestors), who lived on the Wairau Bar in Marlborough more than 700 years ago, are being repatriated to the Bar for reburial this month following an agreement between the Rangitane and the Canterbury Museum for their return.

Under the agreement, an archaeological team led by the University excavated the site to find a suitable area for reburial, and a multidisciplinary team of scientists are studying the tupuna. Canterbury Museum is a major funder of the tupuna research through a Mason Foundation grant.

The co-ordinator of the biological research on the koiwi tangata, Dr Hallie Buckley, says that preliminary analyses of their bones indicate that the settlers led vigorous lifestyles in a new, challenging environment.

“These were very muscular and strong Polynesian people who were generally healthy, but their demanding lifestyle took a toll on their health,” says Dr Buckley, who is a Senior Lecturer in the University’s Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology.

A high number of the 41 tupuna studied had died in young adulthood. This suggests that the rigours of the environment left young people vulnerable to accidental death or health stresses during childhood that caused them to die earlier, she says.

“So far, we have found evidence of a range of health issues which are common among prehistoric peoples. These include dental problems, growing up in difficult conditions leaving its marks on bones and teeth development, and osteoarthritis afflicting some individuals by middle age.

“This severe joint degeneration would have been debilitating and likely resulted from the physically demanding nature of a seafaring lifestyle. A number of individuals also had gouty-type lesions in their feet."

Dr Buckley says that this is the first evidence of gout reported in ancient Maori, supporting the idea that modern Polynesians have a genetic predisposition to hyperuricaemia, which can lead to gout. Further investigations, in collaboration with the University’s Department of Biochemistry, will be carried out to look for traces of uric acid in the bones.

There was also possible evidence of infectious diseases in the population, but diagnosis of these will need to be confirmed by ancient DNA (aDNA) analyses.

The tupuna’s dental problems likely result from tooth enamel being worn away by a diet heavy in fibrous plant foods and gritty shellfish. This would leave them vulnerable to dental infections and tooth loss, she says.

Tell-tale signs of childhood stresses common in prehistory, such as infections and nutritional deficiencies, are apparent in a number of the tupuna’s bones and teeth. Xrays revealed the presence of certain lines in shin bones known as Harris lines, while developmental defects of the enamel and evidence of anemia in the crania were found in some individuals.

Dr Buckley says that despite these childhood health challenges, the adult height of the tupuna seemed to be unaffected, with the skeletons of males being among the tallest found in prehistoric Polynesian populations.

“This finding supports the fact that the Wairau Bar people were generally healthy.

Ongoing chemical and aDNA analyses will help tell us more about their diet and health status.” (see notes below)



The ongoing tupuna research includes the following areas:

• Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, who moves to the University of Otago in August, will carry out the work on the aDNA of the tupuna.

• As well as radiography studies, computed tomography (CT scanning) has been carried out in collaboration with Dunedin Hospital on all complete crania and limb bones. “This will aid in the diagnosis of some pathological lesions as well as giving us a digital record of the tupuna which may be used in 3D reconstruction of the bones in the future,” Dr Buckley says.

• Carbon dating on many of the tupuna is being carried out by Dr Fiona Petchey of the University of Waikato Radiocarbon laboratory.

• Stable isotope studies of bones and teeth are also underway to assess the diet of the Wairau Bar population, and where they may have migrated from.

Wairau Bar and the partnership between Rangitane, Canterbury Museum and the University of Otago:

First excavated over 70 years ago, the Wairau Bar site is one of the most important archaeological sites in New Zealand because of its age and the range of material found there. It is the site of a fourteenth century village occupied by some of the first generations of people who settled New Zealand. The material excavated from the site, most of which is now cared for in the collections at Canterbury Museum, provided the first conclusive evidence that New Zealand was originally settled from East Polynesia.

This discovery was first reported to the NZ public in 1950 by the late Dr Roger Duff, Director of Canterbury Museum, in his ground breaking book The Moahunter Period of Maori Culture. The principal evidence for his conclusions was in the artefacts found; however, the site also contained a large number of human burials, and it is the future of these individuals that is the impetus for the current project.

Between 1938 and 1959 a total of 44 graves were excavated from the site and the grave contents taken to Canterbury Museum for study. For many years Marlborough Iwi, Rangitane, has sought to have the remains repatriated so they could be reburied in the site and agreement has now been reached with Canterbury Museum.

The reburial, due to take place in April, involves further disturbance of the Wairau Bar site and this required an archaeological investigation, which took place earlier this year. Details can be viewed at

The project is a partnership between Rangitane, Canterbury Museum and the University of Otago, with assistance from the Department of Conservation.


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