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Uniting new science and traditional Māori knowledge

5 December 2018

Dr Alan Hogg.

A major Marsden Fund project will combine cutting edge science with Mātauranga Māori to reveal the secrets of pā across the Waikato.

Waikato University’s Associate Professor Alan Hogg, along with Associate Professor Tom Roa and Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki, are working on the $827,000 project. There are more than 500 pā (fortified settlements) around the Waikato. The region is undergoing rapid development that is threatening pā and their landscapes, so work to identify how, when and why they developed is urgent.

The overall aim is to create a regional history of Waikato wetland pā and gardens for the pre-european transitional period - the time interval between about 1400 AD and 1800 AD.

The science involves carbon dating preserved round-wood palisades (poles or stakes used as part of a defensive structure) from the pā sites. At the moment the team are talking with iwi and hapū about access and other issues, and have identified several sites they hope to start with. An earlier project looked at Otāhau Pā, near Taupiri. It was the first precise calendar dating of pā, and used as a model for the current project.

Wiggle-matching in action.

The science involves radiocarbon ‘wiggle-matching’. It is a carbon dating technique that has seldom been applied in New Zealand, combining carbon dating and tree-ring studies.  Dr Hogg says it’s a silly name, but it does actually describe what’s happening. Suffice it to say, it is a little technically complex, but it effectively means you can pinpoint the age of a palisade far more accurately than ever before.

The researchers say that understanding the development and chronology of pā is critical to understanding the evolution and development of Māori culture.

Professor Tom Roa and Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki:

The Waikato region is undergoing rapid development that is negatively affecting pā and their associated landscapes. Cultural knowledge of these places has also been eroded through the colonial period. This project will revive, excite and regenerate knowledge of Māori history at a critical time, bringing the transitional period out of the shadows.  It will also assist the ability of iwi (Māori tribes) and hapū (family groups) to assert their kaitiakitanga (guardianship/ intergenerational responsibility for the wellbeing of the natural environment) now, and into the future.

Utilising and exploring mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge) is integral to understanding the complexities of this study. Mātauranga Māori knowledge repositories held in Tainui narratives: whakapapa, pūrākau (iwi/Māori narratives), waiata (songs), tongikura (maxims), whakatauākī (proverbs), pēpeha (sayings), kīanga (expressions), and kōrero tuku iho (oral traditions) are just some of the sites of interests that will inform the research.

The cultural implications for Māori are significant in terms of the project’s objectives, but its value will also extend into related research and applications of whakapapa. Contextualising people with place, the whakapapa of a pā is both a vertical and a lateral dynamic that encapsulates the development of both the people and the place across time – “Nō neherā, mō anamata”; this exploration of the past (nō neherā) will inform the future (mō anamata).

As Māori and the concept of whakapapa itself are relational, in researching pā specifically, we expect connections with other people-focused institutions and values to come to light. This knowledge and understanding will reinforce, enhance and complement existing iwi and hapū relationships to broader landscapes (taiao) and specific pā sites of ancestral significance.

Interviews will also be held with kaumatua and whānau/hapū (families/family groups) from the Waikato-Tainui iwi to compile tribal histories associated with the selected Waikato pā and gardens.

The combination of archaeological and historical evidence with high-resolution dating of selected pā offers opportunities for whānau/iwi/hapū-led innovation. With detailed knowledge of chieftain genealogies in the greater Waikato and their narratives, combined with accurate and precise calendar dates of Waikato swamp pā, we can begin to understand the form and function of pā, their associated environs and the motivation behind the group mobility associated with these phenomena. This knowledge is crucial to obtaining a better understand of how the original Polynesian settlers (iwi moana) developed into the Māori (tangata whenua) society described from ethnographic accounts.

The knowledge gained from a mātauranga Māori and a science lens will allow us to better understand the relationships between landscape and social change in the Greater Waikato region in the period before European arrival.

It is expected that this project will contribute to enhanced hauora/oranga (health and social wellbeing) by reinforcing personal, whānau, hapū and iwi connections to tangible and intangible heritage, and by contributing to a sense of place within the locality and the world.


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