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Subpolar settlement in South Polynesia
Archaeological research in the Auckland Islands, south of New Zealand, has disclosed earth ovens,
middens and flaked stone tools dating to the thirteenth–fourteenth centuries AD. This is the
first site of prehistoric settlement in the outlying islands of the Subantarctic. Polynesians and
their dogs survived on seals and seabirds for at least one summer. The new data complete a
survey of colonisation in the outlying archipelagos of South Polynesia and show that it occurred
contemporaneously, rapidly and in all directions from mainland New Zealand.
Keywords: Auckland Islands, Polynesians, Subantarctic, colonisation
The probable extent of Polynesian migration in prehistory reaches well beyond the
conventional ‘Polynesian Triangle’, with its vertices at Hawai’i, mainland New Zealand and
Easter Island. To the west of it, there were Polynesian outliers in Melanesia and a village site on
Norfolk Island (Anderson & White 2001). Circular shell fish-hooks and associated subsistence changes along the east coast of Australia in contexts dating 1500-500 BP, together with
the recovery there of stone adzes of Polynesian type (Thorpe 1929), have attracted conjecture
about Oceanic influences (O’Connor & Chappell 2003). Similarly, the first-millennium AD
appearance of planked canoes, and earlier of circular shell fish-hooks, in California and northern Chile has been associated with Polynesian or Oceanic influences (Heizer 1949; Heyerdahl
1952: 697-705), although American development of each is now argued respectively by
Gamble (2002) and Rick et al. (2002). Further south, prehistoric colonisation seems to have
been absent on the Juan Fernandez Islands (Anderson et al. 2002), but Amerindian architectural traits (Martinsson-Wallin 1994) and cultigens on Easter Island are held by Green (1998)
to reflect substantial Polynesian voyaging along the coast of South America, and RamirezAliaga (1992) has collated data suggestive of Polynesian contact with south-central Chile.
Two expeditions beyond the southern angle of the Polynesian Triangle have sought
to elucidate the subpolar extent of Polynesian migration. The first expedition, to the
Snares and Auckland Islands in 1998 (Figure 1), suggested that there had been prehistoric
settlement on both (Anderson & O’Regan 2000), but key elements of the data remained
uncertain. No artefacts were recovered in cultural stratigraphy, sparse shell and fishbone
could have originated in seal scats, and questions remained about the extent of in-built age
in radiocarbon-dated charcoal samples. A second expedition in 2003 sets those concerns
to rest (Anderson 2003a). There is now unambiguous evidence of a thirteenth–fourteenthcentury AD settlement on the Auckland Islands. The new data provide the first evidence
Centre for Archaeological Research, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia (Email:
[email protected])
Received: 17 May 2004; Accepted: 12 October 2004; Revised: 13 October 2004
antiquity 79 (2005): 791–800
Atholl Anderson∗
Subpolar settlement in South Polynesia
Figure 1. The New Zealand sector of the Subantarctic, with the Auckland Islands (right) and Sandy Bay (below).
of pre-European settlement on outlying islands in the Subantarctic zone (the other groups
are Falklands and Gough Islands in the South Atlantic, Crozet and Prince Edward Islands
in the South Indian Ocean and Bounty, Antipodes and Campbell Islands in the South
Pacific). These results also complete a survey of the colonisation prehistory of the outlying
archipelagos of South Polynesia (those lying at 500–800km around mainland New Zealand)
and enable a review of some characteristics of that phase.
Auckland Islands archaeology
The Subantarctic islands lie between the sub-tropical and Antarctic convergence zones.
Locations of these vary seasonally, but south of mainland New Zealand their mean positions
are at about 47◦ S and 57◦ S, respectively. For this and other reasons outlined by Anderson
(1981), Foveaux Strait and the Chathams, identified by Sutton and Marshall (1980) as
‘Subantarctic’, are not in fact subpolar. The largest subpolar archipelago (626km2 ) is
the Auckland Islands, rising to about 650m asl, at 50◦ S. Cloudy (900 hours sunshine
per annum), cool (mean annual temperature of 8◦ C) and humid (100–150cm annual
precipitation), they support a narrow fringe of coastal forest and abundant marine life
(Department of Conservation 1997).
The expedition in 2003 surveyed most of the east and north coast inlets and islands
for signs of Polynesian occupation (the west and south coasts are cliffs up to 600m
high). Shell and bird-bone deposits occurred
in the only substantial cave encountered, at
Tagua Bay, Carnley Harbour, but excavation
showed them to be of natural origin and
they were dated to 2555 +
− 39 BP (Wk13430). The other area was at Sandy Bay,
Enderby Island. A boulder beach ridge there
reaches about 2.0m above mean HTM, and
it is overlain by a 470m-long foredune up
to 1.2m deep, the only substantial area of
sand dunes in the archipelago. The dune
contains discrete deposits of blackened
sand and cultural items which occur as a
single layer, generally 0.25m thick, but up
to 0.5m, enclosed by lower and upper
palaeosols (Figure 2). The lower of these
has a maximum age of about 2800 BP
(McFadgen & Yaldwyn 1984), and the
upper palaeosol, formed after abandonment
of prehistoric occupation but before
nineteenth-century deforestation and the
introduction of domestic stock and rabbits,
led to partial remobilisation of the dunes.
That process allowed deposition of bottle
glass and fragments of clay tobacco pipes
on exposed parts of the prehistoric layer
(Anderson 2003a).
Excavation of 5.0m2 site at area X (Figure 1) disclosed a Polynesian earth oven,
Figure 2. Section at area X, Sandy Bay, showing the cultural
2m in diameter, containing basalt cobbles,
layer between two palaeosols, at the base of the foredune.
charcoal and abundant midden of mussel
shell, and sea lion and bird bone. Midden was sparse nearby, but flakes and cores of chert
and basalt were relatively numerous, suggesting an adjacent processing area. Material from
the cultural layer was screened to 3mm where the matrix was sandy, but where it was sticky
clay-loam, which resisted water sieving, the material was spread out on plastic sheets and
picked through carefully by hand.
Test pits showed that this site represents a single phase of occupation on an area of
70–100m2 . A similar site of comparable size and contents is largely eroded out at area
S, 180m to the east. An uneroded midden there, S5, was test excavated (0.5m2 ) and the
deflated area around it shows that the site comprised a cluster of at least seven ovens and
associated middens and flake tools. On its periphery were the oven (area C) and midden
scatter (area A), investigated in 1998 (Anderson & O’Regan 2000).
Atholl Anderson
Subpolar settlement in South Polynesia
Combined, areas A, C, S and X extend over about 250m2 . Systematic coring and spade
pits along the entire foredune revealed no other cultural deposits of prehistoric provenance.
It is possible that an originally extensive site has been largely lost by water, wind and bioerosion, but as the distribution of flaked chert in deflated dune swales along the foredune
correlates closely with the location of the present prehistoric deposits, it is more probable
that prehistoric occupation was limited and brief.
Potential sources of error in radiocarbon dating include in-built age in charcoal samples,
most of them of long-lived rata (Metrosideros umbellata); storage age from the use of
driftwood and reservoir age for shell and bone from marine-feeding birds. To minimise
these problems, multiple provenances were dated on diverse sample materials (Table 1).
With the exception of one unidentified sample (ANU-12038), all dated charcoals were
identified to taxa. Seven samples were of small-diameter inanga (Dracophyllum longifolium),
which should be of short to medium lifespan, generally 50–80 years but possibly up to
220 years (Anderson & O’Regan 2000). Two samples also included Coprosma c.f. foetidissima
(Wk-13652) and rata (ANU-11238), and one was exclusively of rata (ANU-11236A).
Four shell samples were of southern blue mussel (Mytilus edulis galliprovincialis), which
contains outer layers of calcite that were ground off. Duplicate samples for Wk-13428 and
Wk-13429 were tested for reproducibility and the results were within errors. Three samples
were of ribbed mussel (Aulacomya atra maoriana), exclusively aragonite. Two samples of sooty
shearwater (Puffinus griseus) bone gelatine were also dated, and bone and shell conventional
ages were corrected for the marine reservoir effect (OxCal v. 3.8, Bronk Ramsey 2001) using
the Chatham Islands offset value of 140 +
− 80 radiocarbon years (Waikato Radiocarbon
Laboratory unpublished data).
The distribution of radiocarbon ages by site area (Figure 3) shows that areas A, C and S
date entirely to an early occupation. In area X, there is a chronological difference between
spit 1, which was only partially covered by the upper palaeosol, and spits 2–5 beneath. Shell
samples in spit 1 date to the period of historical occupation of Sandy Bay, also represented
by the midden in area Y. However, the radiocarbon dates from lower levels in area X
indicate prehistoric occupation, contemporary with that in areas A, C and S during the
early thirteenth to fourteenth centuries.
Artefactual and faunal remains
Artefacts from within prehistoric cultural levels included large basalt flakes of a form
consistent with adze preform trimming, although neither preforms nor finished adzes have
been found. More abundant are flakes and scrapers of a hydrothermal laminated chert which
has been broken out of cobbles (Figure 4a and 4b). The basalt is identical to local material
in hand specimen, and the source of the chert probably lies amongst the layers of indurated
argillites and clays which occur between basalt flows near Sandy Bay.
Shell midden consisted mainly of southern blue mussel, ribbed mussel and the limpet,
Cellana strigilis strigilis. The virtual absence of softshore or low-tidal species such as
Atholl Anderson
Table 1. Auckland Islands archaeological radiocarbon dates
Charcoal samples
Location A: Midden Site
Location C: Oven site
Location X: Occupation site
Location Y: Midden site
Marine shell samples
Location S: Midden site
Location X: Occupation site
T/pit DD
Bird bone samples
Location S: Midden site
Location X: Occupation site
estimated value
∂ 13 C
780 +
− 60
840 +
− 60
660 +
− 70
620 +
− 60
800 +
− 50
770 +
− 70
1030 +
− 70
701 +
− 46
658 +
− 47
720 +
− 43
190 +
− 60
1200 +
− 70
1280 +
− 60
676 +
− 30
661 +
− 42
1093 +
− 48
1126 +
− 43
1174 +
− 43
1115 +
− 43
581 +
− 42
1216 +
− 43
1289 +
− 43
Lab. No.
paua (Haliotis virginea huttoni) suggests a focus on the rocky mid-shore. The most
abundant inshore fish locally are the Ice-cods, Paranotothenia spp. (Kingsford et al.
1989). Six P. microlepidota are represented in spit 1, area X, along with four conger
eels, probably Conger verreauxi. However, this material is probably of historical age
(above). In the lower spits, there is only one identified individual of fish (P. microlepidota)
and another at area S, so fishing may have been relatively unimportant prehistorically.
The Sandy Bay prehistoric assemblages include 124 birds, by MNI, of which the
top five taxa (MNI, per cent) are white-chinned petrel, Procellaria aequinoctinialis
Subpolar settlement in South Polynesia
(28, 23), sooty shearwater, Puffinus griseus
(26, 21), Auckland Island shag, Leucocarbo
colensoi (19, 15), southern royal albatross,
Diomedea epomophora (12, 10), and yelloweyed penguin, Megadyptes antipodes (9, 7.3).
As in the fish, there is a substantial difference
between taxa in assemblages of different age.
The main taxa in spit 1, area X, are whitechinned petrel (19, 31), Auckland Island
shag (17, 28), sooty shearwater (8, 13) and
white-headed petrel (5, 8). In spits 2–5, area
X, plus area S5, the main taxa are sooty
shearwater (16, 43), yellow-eyed penguin
(7, 14), white-chinned petrel (6, 14) and
southern royal albatross (5, 10).
The prehistoric material thus indicates
stronger targeting of the muttonbird (sooty
shearwater), the largest available taxa
(albatross and penguin) and the facultatively
flightless Auckland Island teal (Anas
aucklandica), of which three individuals
are recorded only in this assemblage. The
general absence of local landbirds, such as tui
(Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae), parakeets
(Cyanorhamphus spp.) and a rail (Rallus
muelleri), suggests a bias against fowling
in the wet coastal forest. The prominence
Figure 3. Calibrated radiocarbon ages, AD at 1 SD and 2
SD for archaeological deposits at Sandy Bay. Sample types
of the shearwaters, petrels and albatross
are: c = charcoal, s = shell and b = bone. Dashed lines show
indicate fowling during the September to
approximate period within which prehistoric occupation
May breeding period of these species in the
Auckland Islands, but occupation during
the winter cannot be ruled out.
Mammal bone assemblages are split between Hookers sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri,
MNI = 7), which breeds at Sandy Bay, and New Zealand fur seal Arctocephalus forsteri,
MNI = 7), which breeds elsewhere on Enderby Island. Sea lion pup bone indicates local
breeding some 650 years ago, and capture during the summer months. Fur seal bone is
dominant in spits 1 and 2 of area X, but it is replaced by sea lion bone in the lower
spits. This might reflect either a cultural impact on the Sandy Bay sea lion colony or
a seasonal effect, since fur seals remain once sea lions have largely departed following
breeding. Some pieces of bone had been chewed in patterns characteristic of dogs (Canis
familiaris), the first evidence that dogs reached the Subantarctic islands prehistorically
(Figure 5). Remains of 14 seals and 124 large birds, amongst those of fish and shellfish,
within an excavated volume of 1.6m3 , typify the high faunal density in colonisation
Atholl Anderson
Figure 4. (a) Chert flakes, above, and basalt flakes, below, from spits 2 to 5 at area X, Sandy Bay; (b) chert scraper from S5,
Sandy Bay.
Figure 5. Fur seal ulna (below, spit 2, area X) with semi-circle of dog-tooth puncture marks, and 70mm long sea lion rib
fragment (above, area S5), with dog-chewing marks, Sandy Bay (Ian Smith).
Subpolar settlement in South Polynesia
Subpolar settlement and South Polynesia
About 650 years ago, Polynesians and their dogs settled at Sandy Bay in the subpolar
Auckland Islands, during at least one summer–autumn period, but probably for only a few
years at most. They hunted sea lions, fur seals and nesting seabirds, but there was little
foraging in the sea or coastal forest. Chert cobbles were fashioned into flake tools and
basalts tested for adze manufacture. Once habitation ceased (there is no indication yet of
whether the people left or died out), there was no further settlement until after the European
discovery of the islands in AD 1807. When settlement resumed, it was by a group of Maori
and Moriori in 1842-1856. They, and British colonists, 1849-1852, abandoned the islands
in the face of harsh environmental conditions (Dingwall et al. 1999). Further exploration
is planned to determine whether prehistoric Polynesians reached other subantarctic islands,
notably Campbell Island and the Antipodes.
However, the 2003 expedition to the Auckland Islands completes the first archaeological
survey of prehistoric colonisation in each of the outlying archipelagos of South Polynesia:
the Chathams, Kermadecs, Norfolk, Lord Howe and Subantarctic groups. As such, it invites
a brief consideration of initial colonisation patterns in the region.
The data show considerable differences in settlement duration. The Chathams (700km
east of New Zealand) were inhabited continuously, there was relatively substantial settlement,
marked by the existence of small villages, in the Kermadec and Norfolk Islands (800km
north-east and north-west of New Zealand, respectively) but only brief habitation in the
Subantarctic and none on Lord Howe Island (1200km west of New Zealand; Anderson
2003c). Leaving aside contingencies of survival in small colonies, both demographic and
social, it might be thought that differences in available resources had been an important
factor, especially since the South Polynesian islands are distributed over 21 degrees of latitude
(29–50◦ S). Yet, foraging regimes were remarkably similar everywhere, with muttonbirding
prominent in every case (Anderson 1996), and sealing evident even in the subtropical
archipelagos. It was too cold to grow Polynesian cultigens such as sweet potato in the
Chathams or Subantarctic, but there is scarcely any evidence to suggest that horticulture
was available to the early subtropical colonists either; no remains of cultigens or associated
artefacts or structures are known from the archaeology of the Kermadecs or Norfolk. In the
Subantarctic, the miserable climate and virtual absence of plant foods to alleviate a diet of
seals and birds, must have been a discouragement to long-term habitation. Otherwise, island
size may have been important demographically. Excepting the Aucklands, the Chathams are
30 to 60 times the size of each of the other outlying groups.
The pattern of initial colonisation in South Polynesia can be inferred from the distribution
of sourced obsidians (Anderson 2000). These show that the Chathams and Kermadecs were
settled directly from New Zealand, while Norfolk Island was settled from New Zealand via
the Kermadecs. The Auckland Islands were probably settled from southern New Zealand
via the Snares, from which an adze of early type has been recovered (Anderson & O’Regan
2000). Rather than progressive colonisation from the more congenial north to the cold
south, as might have been expected in the light of tropical East Polynesian origins, the
pattern was therefore essentially radial, expanding in all directions from mainland New
Colonisation occurred at virtually the same time everywhere and at a period
indistinguishable from that of the initial settlement of New Zealand (Anderson 1991).
Prehistoric dates for Sandy Bay are virtually the same as those for the earliest known sites in
the Kermadecs (Higham & Johnson 1996) and Norfolk Island (Anderson & White 2001).
Current earliest dates for the Chathams are later, c . 450 BP, but there are unexcavated
sites which contained artefacts indicative of settlement several hundred years earlier (Duff
1956: 118). At an archaeological timescale, the South Polynesian dispersal was thus almost
instantaneous. In this, it conforms to the pattern of very rapid dispersal evident both in East
Polynesia, c . 1100-900 BP (Anderson & Sinoto 2002), and the c . 3300-2800 BP Lapita
expansion in the west Pacific (Anderson 2003b).
Colonisation in the Pacific sector of the subpolar zone is not as unexpected as it would
seem elsewhere. Polynesian sailing technology was more advanced than that in southern
South America, for example, so that although the Falklands are a larger and closer target,
they were probably out of reach until the advent of European ships. Nevertheless, they
lie in the circumpolar West Wind Drift and it is not impossible that they were reached
accidentally; it would be much more surprising if prehistoric seafarers had reached subpolar
islands in the Indian Ocean.
Thanks to Nga Runanga o Murihiku and Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu for approval to work in the Subantarctic
islands, and to Rachel Egerton, Paul Dingwall, Jeremy Carroll, and Andy Cox of the Department of Conservation
(New Zealand), who arranged the 2003 expedition. I thank Katherine Szabo, Alan Tennyson, Ian Smith, Richard
Walter and Rod Wallace for their analytical reports and Fiona Petchey for help with radiocarbon matters. The
Centre for Archaeological Research (ANU) and the Department of Conservation provided financial assistance
with radiocarbon dating. Lyn Schmidt assisted with the illustrations.
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