Poi Eh? Did Hawaiians settle in New Zealand?
It was a child's pair of spectacles lying in the dirt beneath an iconic Dunedin homestead that first attracted the attention of Paul Sammes. They weren't modern, they were old. A curio-seeker, they lured Sammes to dig just a little deeper.
The house was like something from Restoration Man, built more than a century ago for Lieutenant James Duncan Cameron, a Scottish migrant from Paisley in Scotland and owner of the Westport Coal Company. A Freemason and Knight Templar initiate, Cameron in 1911 commissioned young Dunedin builder James Fletcher to construct a mansion suitable for a laird, on the cliff at Belleknowes above Dunedin city.
Current owner Sammes purchased the property three years ago from "a religious group", and set out to restore the iconic residence. Fletcher heir Angus has been through and briefed him on some of the history:
"Cameron married into the Fletcher family as a result of the construction, and that's apparently where quite a bit of the money to start Fletchers came from," says Sammes, himself also a Mason. "Fletchers initially didn't have any money, they were as poor as church mice. The Camerons pretty much ran this city a hundred years ago."
Lieutenant Cameron was a member of Dunedin's Celtic Lodge, and the house was used in Knights Templar rituals, according to Sammes. It's the kind of old house you can imagine having a few family skeletons in the closet. What Paul Sammes didn't expect was to find skeletons underneath it.
"I'm naturally curious. I found some children's spectacles and then some tools buried in the earth, so before we laid the rest of the floor I started to do some digging. About a year and a half ago I found some bones and called the cops. A young police officer came here with a couple of seedy-looking detectives, and they took the bones away. They came back to me a week later and said 'inconclusive'. I said 'you've got to be kidding, they're either human or they're not', and they said well 'if you find a skull, let us know'.
"I'm friends with the Coroner who they should have taken the bones
to in the first place, and he said they never took the bones to him. We're both Freemasons, so I asked him to come along and look at the bones himself."
There are at least three skeletons that have been unearthed. Two are ancient, probably children, and they showed strong evidence of cannibalization. The third was much more recent, as the skeleton still had the remnants of women's stockings.
"I think somebody might have knocked off one of the maids and buried her under the house," says Sammes matter of factly.
But it's the other artifacts, rather than the bodies, that really have Sammes, a former university lecturer, perplexed.
Much of the back yard was still bush when Sammes began clearing it and digging post-holes for a fenceline. Practically every time his spade hit the turf, up came signs of an earlier civilization.
"I found moa bones, and gizzard stones from moas--I identified them by taking photos of the bones I had then going to the museum and comparing them to the local species of small moa--about the size of a large turkey.
"Precious stones, greenstone, jasper--artifacts started turning up in my back yard as I was clearing the bush in the back. There's clearly structures. Now at that point I contacted a friend of mine who is an archaeologist, and he said 'look, you've got evidence of civilization here'. I got a guy from the Historic Places Trust but he didn't even want to look out the back window. Then a woman from the university came who told me 'these stones are naturally forming'. I said 'OK, but please explain to me how the hell they're buried under the ground on top of a mountain in Dunedin, because they don't occur naturally here.' She didn't have any answer for that."
It's a fair question. Even if the stones were natural shapes (and they do not appear to be in most cases as they show evidence of tooling), they cannot "naturally" appear on a hilltop hundreds of kilometers from their point of origin. If human influence brought these stones all that distance, it doesn't take Sherlock to figure out the humans had a reason for doing so, which means the "natural" argument doesn't fly.
One of the reasons the university may be in denial, suspects Sammes, is because the stone tools show evidence of stoneworking but not in the Maori style. That raises uncomfortable questions, he suggests:
"I'm a man of science, and we get quite excited by new discoveries, whereas arts graduates--no disrespect if you're an arts graduate--tend to learn things by rote, so when something new and challenging comes along they just don't want to know about it."
Apart from the bodies, Sammes has found shellfish for Africa, a clear sign of human habitation on the site. "I found strange things, like all these polished oysters in the ground, buried into the hillside. I even found pieces of coral, catseyes, shells, lots of stuff.
"I originally thought I had stumbled on the old Maori settlement in Dunedin called Otepoti, because the Toitu stream, which the early settlers museum is named after now, runs around the bottom of the hill. Strategically, in such a place, there were always going to have been people here. This neighbourhood is covered in rocks, and all the flash houses have big rock walls built from the rocks. Our house was built into the cliff face.
"There seems to be a lot of stuff in my back yard that clearly is evidence of habitation, but no one at the university wants to accept it for what it is." Investigate passed pictures of the objects to Professor Paul Moon at AUT in Auckland. As a historian, Moon has written extensively on early Maori history. He told the magazine they were "orphan finds", meaning without equal in NZ and therefore without context.
"Given that the quantity of artifacts is far too small to suggest they are the remnants of a community, and given that there is no provenance for these items, then on the balance of probability, it is more likely that they were discarded at the location (for whatever reason and at whatever time) rather than being evidence of a pre-Maori population."
The "provenance" issue, mutters Sammes, is exactly why he's going public on the find--so authorities can prove for themselves by "bringing a shovel" and starting a formal archaeological dig.
"There's a ton of stuff, it just keeps coming out of the ground. We're on the crest of a hill and I'm sure there was an ancient pa site on this hill within a hundred metres of here. The largest amount of moa bones ever found in Dunedin are only 300 metres from here, clearly where they threw them off the bank. If I was a Neolithic camp-making person I'd say it's the best place in Dunedin to build a fortress. There's probably six or seven other houses alongside mine at the top of the hill here--old Victorian piles--that must be sitting on it.
"Here's another funny one for you. The street used to be called Serpentine Avenue, which is the Scottish name for jade greenstone."
The avenue has been renamed Lonsdale Street.
Frustrated at the point blank refusal of archaeologists at Otago University to investigate the site further, Sammes went further afield, approaching researchers at the University of Hawaii to see if they could shed any light on the strange tools. It turned out, they could.
Emails obtained by Investigate show the Hawaiians instantly recognized what they called a "stirrup pounder" --a piece of rock with an indentation dug into it--which was used in Hawaii to grind taro roots for a food dish called "poi".
From Honolulu, anthropologist Mark Oxley told Sammes the object appeared to be "an unfinished stirrup pounder (the object with the circular perforation). That would mean it is from Kauai Island, as they are not known to be found elsewhere."
Another Hawaiian scientist, James Bayman, also described it as "a crude poi pounder".
There were three types of pounder in use through Polynesia to process taro. The stirrup pounder is the oldest form, and has never been found anywhere except ancient diggings on Kauai Island. The objects are rare--one recently fetched $2,700 at auction in San Francisco.
Paul Sammes says the Hawaiians ran for cover when he told them where he'd found it:
"When I sent the pictures to the archaeologist in Hawaii, the first thing he said was that one of the pieces was from Kauai, but as soon as I revealed it had been buried in my back yard in New Zealand, he rejected the notion that it's Hawaiian. 'No, there's no link between New Zealand and Hawaii,' he said. I said, 'Well, you just identified a tool that only comes from only one island, not known anywhere else'."
The problem is, Otago University told Sammes that Maori didn't make stone tools like these, "they didn't have that technology," he says. Yet here they are, in suburban Belleknowes, Dunedin.
It's not the first anomaly involving stone tools and artifacts in New Zealand. In the book The Great Divide, geologist Julius von Haast is quoted on his discovery of a stone axe buried five metres underground on the West Coast, underneath what had been a thousand year old beech forest in the mid 1800s. New Zealand's official historians have no explanation for that, or the timings that would place the tool in the ground as early as 100 AD--long before humans were assumed to have arrived in New Zealand.
Is it possible Hawaiians visited Dunedin in the distant past? Nobody knows, but if you are an interested archaeologist, the owner of 76 Lonsdale Street in Dunedin would like to hear from you.