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Paul Harris
New Zealand and the Rats
By Paul Richard Harris
Axis of Logic
Monday, Sep 7, 2009

This is an article about New Zealand (Godzone)* that is only controversial if you happen to be an archaeologist, an anthropologist, a Maori, or a rat. I have a friend in Godzone who is neither an archaeologist, nor an anthropologist, nor a Maori. I’m not sure about whether he’s a rat. But he is a writer, and this is the sort of article you might expect to come from him. Alas, the subject might be too close for him if, in fact, he is a rat.

So this is an article that attempts to speak to something other than war or poverty or human stupidity or any of the other black things that usually fill my head. And it’s meant to prove to my mother that not all of my thoughts are dark or negative.

The Maori are the indigenous people of Godzone, depending on how you define the word ‘indigenous’.  Go back far enough and none of us is indigenous to where we live; mankind clearly originated somewhere, probably Africa, and has dispersed around the globe ever since. The most recently settled major landmass, in anthropological terms, is Godzone; and it appears the Maori first arrived there at an uncertain date between 250 and 850 C.E. But their legends speak to the people who were there before them, which implies – well, it might imply earlier people, or maybe just folk stories. No archaeological evidence has been found to support an earlier people.

The Maori believe their ancestors arrived in Godzone from Hawaiiki, a legendary homeland in Polynesia, most likely in the Society or Cook Islands. That part of the story is almost certainly accurate, but the rest of the tale is cloudier. It has been thought that the first settlers made the thousand-mile trip in waves between 800-900 C.E. A great hero, Kupe, was believed to have reached Godzone by 950, to be followed in 1150 by another great explorer, Toi. A fleet of oceangoing canoes is said to have made landfall around 1350 and many of the fifty or so current Maori tribes, or iwi, trace their heritage to those canoes.

Today, scholars suspect that the chronology of the previous paragraph is actually a European invention based on cobbled-together Maori legend and a little imaginative editing.

Controversy arose in 1988 when an archaeologist named Douglas Sutton proposed that humans had lived in Godzone since around 250 C.E. He based his theory in part on scarce archaeological records of fires that were clearly man-made and could be dated that early. Although other scholars vigorously discounted him, the evidence just would not go away.

Still, there is no actual extant record of settlement, just the possibility of human presence. Sutton is careful to point out that the Maori legends of the people who were in Godzone before their arrival should not be dismissed out of hand; there may have been only a small group moving across the landscape, making their evidence difficult to locate. I suspect Sutton is right about that last point as it has long been my belief that legend and mythology is usually born out of something other than just imagination. Among the archaeological and anthropological crowd, recent activities have largely focused on trying to prove Sutton right or wrong.

For the Maori, there is some importance to this debate that is more than just academic interest. Relationships between iwi are based largely on seniority, how long a certain tribe has occupied a certain area. The possibility of early settlement and revised arrival dates could confuse the established iwi hierarchy. For this, and for reasons of scholarly pride, there is some heated debate as to the reliability and accuracy of recent archaeological research.

And that’s where the rats come in. They are not native to Godzone; indeed, they are not even native to Polynesia. They can’t swim large distances, so the only way they could get to Godzone (this is prior to Kiwi Airlines) is by boat, either as stowaways or as intended food. The historic record shows that rats have been in Godzone for around 2,000 years. While that figure may be off a little, radioisotope dating is generally considered to be pretty accurate and recent paleological records reveal evidence of rats in Godzone for at least that long. And that implies people, since people are the only way the rats could have arrived.

A paper published by avian paleontologist Richard Holdaway in 1996 presented radiocarbon dates on rat bones that were about 2,000 years old. His data was severely criticized because of the obvious historic ramifications of the proposed dates. Today, however, it is widely accepted that his figures are correct, and that means a re-writing of the supposed history of the New Zealand archipelago.

This is a debate that is long from settled, however. Even if the rat dates are correct, there is still no direct evidence of human habitation. Holdaway is careful to point out that he is not claiming humans settled in Godzone so early, just that they clearly visited. Still, it seems unlikely that once arriving in the islands any group of travelers would have turned around and left. It is, after all, a nice place.

And even if the rat dates are correct, people have been in New Zealand for less time than they have on any other large land mass except Antarctica, making the islands’ history the briefest mark on the human record.

For the benefit of my Kiwi friend, I thought to close this article with a little dig about the indignity of his home’s history being tied to the story of immigrant rats. But then I recalled that I live in a country whose national symbol – the beaver – is a rodent (although at least they’re bigger and cuter than crappy rats).

* New Zealanders often refer to their islands as ‘God’s Own Country’, often abbreviated as ‘Godzone’.

Paul Richard Harris is an Axis of Logic editor and columnist, based in Canada.  He can be reached at

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