Alternative Archaeology

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Alternative theories of the settlement of New Zealand are not new (see notes below). Speculations abound about non-Maori previous settlers or people who influenced Maori other than the first historically documented voyages of Tasman, de Surville and Cook have occurred for the past 150 years.

One can tick off Chinese, Tamil, Spanish, Libyans, Indians, Tibetans, Egyptians, Celts, Peruvians and extra-terrestrials all having their supporters. Sometimes they cite the same evidence to support these disparate origins. Even giant apes have a supporter for being here in the past - against all biogeography.

You can find much of this on the internet.

How can you tell alternative archaeology from the more conventional sort?


• The context is often self-published works or websites not connected to mainstream organisations or academic publishers.

• They are often presented in the manner of being sensational new discoveries when the detail is using a lot of old material.

• Announcements are often to the media alone.

• Use of secondary sources abound.

• Sources are often poorly documented.

• Rarely is there any grass-roots contribution, only some grand overview.

• The actual theory is often somewhat obscure especially at the detailed end.


• Fieldwork looking at sites is not often a feature. Excavation even rarer.

• The archaeology is usually not up to the professional standards relating to recording, testing, analysis and

• Independent dating is rarely carried out or presented.

• Astronomical observatories, pyramids, canals, alignments and roadways are often inferred rather than proved.


• Where ages are known glaring discrepancies are often ignored as if all non-recent dates are sufficient support.

• The dating and functional discrepancies between features considered as evidence of cultural links is usually ignored

• The assembly of facts is often eclectic. The theories often roam beyond New Zealand presenting odd snippets from all over as somehow significant

• There is little in the way of a comprehensive view of how the society they are proposing existed, rather somewhat obsessive concentration on a few features.

• Appeals to the distribution of plants and animals at the time of first written records are often made, without any consideration of what is often a known history of these plants or animals.


• The proponents rarely have qualifications in archaeology, anthropology or history.

• Often those with qualifications in other fields or celebrities are promoted as experts although have no background the archaeology of New Zealand or the Pacific


• There is often a "new age" element. Mysterious revelations from elders of great spirituality and learning can often be found as the basis of the new truth.

• Sadly there is often a racist element in New Zealand originated theories. Resentment often surfaces by non-Maori at settlement of Waitangi Tribunal claims, with the view that history has now revealed demonstrates these claims are unjustified. It often appears minimally as doubting the capacity of mere Polynesians to have carried out some feat.

• Some advocates are natural contrarians and will bring in alternative views to the conventional across a variety of disciplines.

• Conspiracy theories are often built into them. The "of course academics have to support the conventional view - their jobs and research funding depend on it" stuff. Not surprisingly this argument very often appears from alternative theorists in fields other than archaeology. Often Maori are supposed to have some special influence over what is allowed in the conventional views. As someone said "the complete lack of evidence is the surest sign that the conspiracy is working." {Source? - Kenneth Star, the Clinton era special counsel investigating various matters is asserted in some sources – but at a jurist he seems a bit unlikely and as an American it is perhaps a bit too close to irony)

• Cultural identity – it is not uncommon for groups to identify connections to earlier groups either to create links to the landscape and history or to distinguish local identity from neighbouring groups. Such linkages can also extend far and wide, connecting groups which may have shared objectives although not directly historically related.


Why do conventional scholars rarely engage to rebut the alternative views?

Professional scholars have engaged in rebutting alternative views both in the academic literature and in public media. Single issue matters such as the interpretation of the Kaimanawa "Wall" do get dealt with by conventional scientists where there is not a whole world view with which to be engage (or at least there was not initially).

On a broader scale, writers such as Velikovsky was disputed as his views were seen as an attack on science, then in a peak of esteem post World War II. This opposition continued later because of his adoption by the anti-science counter-culture. Creationists get countered when they threaten science education (see Stephen Jay Gould’s articles on this, or chapter 9 of S B Carroll's The Making of the Fittest, Quercus, 2006).

There are a number of reasons for scholars not to engage in the debate:

• Academics get little credit from the colleagues through undertaking such debate - it seems outside their normal area of work. The time put into reading the work and responding is better put to work more likely to result in academic credit.

• The authors of alternative views are usually sincere in their beliefs, but unused to academic ways of argument. Academics that do respond are usually then characterised as bullying or attempting to suppress alternative perspectives rather than as educators. This relates to the perceived influence of academics rather than to the strength of an argument.

• Some holders of alternative views have fierce bands of supporters who have few limits in attacking any who hold other views. The Michael Mann controversies in climate science show how the actions of some people engaged can move well beyond a scientific debate. This can include physical and professional threats. This is a dampener on academics' willingness to engage.

• Alternative views are already part of internal academic debate. Research is a competitive business and where new evidence can be marshalled to support a different perspective, there is real interest in doing so.

• Media coverage of such arguments is motivated towards creating controversy rather than resolving it.

Are Maori the first settlers of New Zealand?

More accurately, Aotearoa/New Zealand was settled by Polynesians who develop what we recognise as Maori during their settlement in New Zealand. The evidence that Polynesians (and their ancestors) settled the western Pacific is overwhelming and was obvious to the first European explorers who came through the area. From any perspective, Maori were clearly the dominant population in New Zealand at the time of contact with European explorers.

As to whether they were “first”, a number of factors have to be considered:

• New Zealand is remote, and set in a stormy cool ocean. It can only be reached by accomplished sailors. This means settlement is only likely by a social group with a sophisticated deep ocean sailing maritime history.

• Maori settlement of New Zealand was part of an archaeologically now well known expansion across the Pacific, traceable archaeologically to eastern Indonesia. Analogues of the New Zealand Archaic version of Maori culture are found widely distributed in Eastern Polynesia at dates broadly consistent with the New Zealand manifestation. Again British colonisation of New Zealand, while much of it was by direct voyages from Britain, was part of a pattern of colonisation in South Africa, Australia, India, eastern Asia and North America. These colonies were staging posts in some cases and all traded between themselves. If another group was involved than we would expect to see a pattern of settlement which ends in New Zealand, not which has New Zealand as some isolated exception.

• We would expect to see the ordinary stuff of life. Occupation sites will occur with evidence of houses, discarded waste, monuments burial practices and tools. The built and made things would form a distinctive culture complex, with some key forms of everyday tools and structures traceable back to the place of origin.

• For people who had ceramics in their place of origin we would expect to find remains of imported ceramics here and expect the settlers to have continued making pottery. Sherds from ceramics are very often distinctive, are durable and imported wares are often found in the pioneer sites when a place is settled. New Zealand has suitable clays and no shortage of firewood for continuing making ceramics. Archaeologists would therefore expect to be finding ceramics relating to these other cultures in New Zealand and in contexts that date earlier than Maori occupation.

• The sites would be datable by means such as carbon dating to a time before Polynesian settlement.

In short we would expect some definitively datable material culture evidence relating to settlement, exploitation and use of New Zealand prior to Polynesian settlement.

The possibility that different groups of Pacific Islanders from other parts of Polynesia and perhaps even farther east cannot be ruled out and scientific research continues to pursue such ideas. In addition, recent research also points towards connections to places such as South America, and perhaps Australia but this was carried out by the Pacific Island sailors rather than the people of more land-focused continental groups.

It is interesting that neither contemporary evidence nor the archaeological research in the areas where the other groups originate from have given rise to claims that they made it to New Zealand.

Is there a conspiracy to suppress alternative theories to the settlement of New Zealand?


Clearly, if there was such a conspiracy it has systematically failed to suppress information for more that 150 years as there are numerous publications, newspaper articles, etc describing alternative theories. The internet has also not only made sharing these theories easier but also allows access to the long history of such theories.

The main contention seems to be that publishing alternative theories is difficult. The fact remains that publishing “conventional” work is difficult. Academic publishing requires extensive peer-review which means that work as to meet the standards set out there.

Further Reading

Lists of features of alternative views can be found for other areas of supposed pseudoscience, but as Gordin (2012:10) argues in his treatise on the Velikovsky controversies some of listed characteristics might be found in conventional work so such lists as above are not always a useful demarcation tool. Rather he argues there is not a firm boundary. See: Gordin, M D, 2012 The Pseudoscience Wars. University of Chicago Press, London. John Grant Denying Science 2011 Prometheus Books, is another broad review.

Sometimes not much changes. Go to a library and read Tregear's The Aryan Maori 1885. The scholarship then was even a little better than most offerings today.

To find more about how seductive the Aryan idea was to empire minded people see: Orientalism and Race; Aryanism in the British Empire. A Ballantyne, 2002 Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

This sort of issue arises all around the world - see Bad Archaeology

More broadly there are often extraordinary claims in other fields - see Bogus Science for advice on detection.

Kerry Howe of Massey University has published on alternative theories. He is an historian, not an archaeologist. It is a good read. Howe, K. 2003 The Quest for Origins - Who First Discovered and Settled New Zealand and the Pacific Islands?, Auckland: Penguin Books.

An older contribution is by Peter White, an Australian archaeologist who shows that the conventional view is both exciting and it is more intriguing, as it is about us as people. White, P. 1974 The Past is Human. Angus and Robertson London.