Burying The Evidence - The Poukawa Saga

It wouldn’t. Let’s learn about some scientists who disputed the indisputable and buried the evidence.

In 1963, Russell Price was a retired Hastings farmer, happily working alongside the University of Auckland. The 'golden age of archaeology' (1955-65) was the zenith of discovery in this country, but it all came crashing down in 1974 with a law preventing amateurs from conducting unauthorised archaeological digs. Dr Robert Falla, director of the Dominion Museum, at the time remarked that amateurs were more impressive than professionals, as long as looting of artefacts was not done. However, Jack Golson of the Polynesian Society (associated with the University of Auckland) was disagreeing with legendary archaeologist Roger Duff, who was opposed to the involvement of amateurs in his field. While Duff’s faction was turning the tide academically, Price was excavating in and around Lake Poukawa and Te Aute, both lake beds inland from Hawke’s Bay, which are bounded by soft limestone and 400m cliffs. Google Lake Poukawa now and you’ll see case studies recognising Poukawa as a window into the past.

Price wanted to discover as much as possible about the pre-European state of Hawkes Bay, which had been affected by irrigation, draining of lakes and the earthquake of 1931. A drainage project involving two kilometres of the lake’s north end in 1961 allowed excavation which revealed vast amounts of moa bones in between two layers of pumice, separated by peat. These tephra, lapilli and ash layers were from two eruptions – Lake Taupo was once a monstrous volcano, globally significant, and it blew its stack in 1320 BC, and then again in 181AD. These are known as the Taupo and Waimihia eruptions, respectively.

On October 6, 1962, 12 different layers of material were identified in ash bands which gave up 219 bones of extinct aptornis, swans, geese, herons and moa. This was valuable on its own, but Price also discovered split, cut matai; totara sharpened and bored through; and tools made from sandstone, greywacke and granite. Price became excited: birds don’t cut trees in half with tools, nor do they make wooden weapons or stone tools. This had to be the work of man. The area initially excavated was 223 square metres, yielding 2095 bones, and also 2037 crop stones from the stomachs of moa (these were swallowed to aid in digestion.) The crop stones were composed of rock which didn’t come from central Hawkes Bay: this meant that it could have been transported inland by human beings… but how could there have been people in New Zealand a thousand years before Maori? All of Price’s finds had been found below the two pumice bands and the single layer of peat, meaning that whoever had left these artefacts had been alive at the time of the volcanoes. Price knew the significance of the dig, but he didn’t realise he was digging his own grave.

Price was soon reporting back to the New Zealand Archaeological Association, and he attracted the attention of an expert named Allan Pullar, who had been investigating ash bands in the Bay of Plenty. Pullar became interested and agreed to work on the vast kitchen midden which Price had now revealed, along with moa leg bones which showed cut marks which could only have been made by man.

Throughout the 1960s, Price’s test bores kept bringing back cultural material (man-made material), and this indicated three major periods of human occupation, ie. three different groups of people. Price couldn’t tell exactly who had been there first: all he knew was that the clock had been wound back farther than anyone ever thought possible. Price was advised by neolithic tool expert Professor Francois Bordes of the University of Bordeaux that a stone flake tool which he found could have been made by Melanesians, Aborigines, Polynesians, Africans or Europeans, or indistinguishable cavemen, but it was not the work of Maori. Maori had certainly been active at Poukawa from the 1700s, but there was nothing to strongly suggest that what Price was uncovering was Maori material, and besides, the accepted date of Maori arrival is 1250AD. To suggest any different may be correct, but it’s not politically correct.

Beneath the lowest band of ash, Price was uncovering stone flakes and evidence of fires to cook food. So far, all the evidence said that the original people of Hawke’s Bay had had an undeveloped culture – that means an unlasting culture.

When Allan Pullar joined Price in 1964, he was the most qualified soil layer expert in the country, having previously discovered, near Gisborne, signs of human occupation dating back to 186AD. Pullar had also discovered ash mantling along the Whakatane-Tauranga highway, indicating settlement there before the 1100AD Kaharoa ash fall from Mt Tarawera. Pullar recognised the same ash layer at Poukawa. Charcoal and pollen samples led the men to conclude that human beings had been in New Zealand for an astonishing 3300 years, and they definitely would have cracked open the champagne that night to celebrate their astonishing discovery, except for one thing: Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Antagonists stepped forward to tear apart Price and Pullar’s findings. It meant 15 minutes in the spotlight for the haters, and a lifetime of anguish and disappointment for Price and Pullar. The 1931 earthquake had jumbled Price’s layers, they said, mixing up obsidian, soap stone and a carved pumice disc. The indisputable cut marks made on moa bones, by which to suck the marrow out? These were merely the claw marks of the massive Haast’s Eagle, doubters said. The Auckland Archaeological Association arrived in the summer of 1961, and Jack Golson pounced on Pullar. Would the AAA and Polynesian Society maintain their reputations if they sided with Price’s and Pullar’s findings? Evidently not, as Drs McCone, Fleming, Kohn, Rafter and Vucetich agreed with Pullar only in a Statement of Belief which had to be kept secret. Even now, Price’s biographer Bevan Greenslade claims that this document may even have been forged. Evidently, Greenslade can’t bear to consider that New Zealand’s history may have to be rewritten. The statement of belief – signed but never published – vindicates Price and Pullar, researcher John Tasker claims. The statement agrees that the stratigraphic composition of the sand and peat at Poukawa means that anything found at the bottom had to have occurred prior to the Taupo shower. That’s what this all comes down to: jealous scientists bickering over the date of dirt. Whether New Zealand’s first inhabitants died during the Taupo eruptions is not known – human bones still haven’t been found at Poukawa – but the wealth of evidence left behind should be indisputable proof that someone was there… unless moa carved stone tools!

The 1963 New Zealand Archaeological Association newsletter vol. 6, issue 4, recorded some of the best evidence:

Results:

Items directly related to man have been found below the pumice band. One split slab of matai, cut neatly in half by a sharp instrument; two pieces of totara, which had been sharpened by man, were also found, and one piece had been partly bored. Also found in this layer were six sandstone and greywacke stones used by man; there was also a Dinornis (moa) skull cleft by a blow from a sharp instrument.

Once again, everything found was beneath the pumice band, ie. before the Taupo eruption in the second century AD. The newsletter then went on to report: “Results from Site 2 confirm that… a pumice disc worked by man was found.” And in conclusion, its authors wrote: “It is quite clear that a people living on a spur in an area teeming with bird life - as the avalanche of refuse material indicates – would have to do something about the disposal of the bones.” They dumped the bones in the nearest stream.”

It would have been a terrible time to be alive in New Zealand 4500 to 3300 years ago, with Taupo raining fire and lava on the entire country, but 1969 to 1973 AD have been just as bad, considering the vile academic fallout which rained upon Price and Pullar. Dr Bruce McFadgen and a team from Victoria University and the Wellington Archaeological Society savaged Price’s findings in Volume 9 of the Royal Society Magazine. What Price had claimed were post holes from man-made walls were merely holes from tree roots, McFadgen said; filing marks made on moa bones were blamed on tree roots, too. The site, McFadgen concluded, had been occupied only as far back as 300 years ago… not 3000 years. McFadgen and his team made their conclusions by digging in places already gone over by Price and Pullar, and that has disgusted alternative New Zealand historians ever since. McFadgen also tangled with major authority Leslie Adkin, who had been In Search of Our Tangata Whenua ever since the 1930s.

Pullar fought to prove that Maori hadn’t dug down and affected his samples, and that floods hadn’t moved his ash samples around. This would have been exasperating for him. After all, why were the carved bones of seals and exotic birds so far inland? Dr Richard Holdaway years later told the Listener magazine that “Most archaeologists have never actually excavated through two feet of ash. It seals everything underneath it. You can see every last wormhole in it and you can see where there is damage to it. So if something is underneath you know it was there before the ash fell.” He doesn’t specifically believe that mankind has been here for 4000 years, but Holdaway will go down in history as the man who proved that rats were brought to New Zealand 2000 years ago.

Frustrated, Price and Pullar split apart. Price had carbon dating done in Germany, the results of which confirmed his claims. Peter Horn was there at the height of the controversy, and he has directed elocal towards the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s 1983 report on the finds at Lake Poukawa. This report describes the many species which Maori hunted to extinction, but which left bones at Poukawa. These species include oxyura australis, the blue-billed duck, musk duck, the extinct native swan, Finsch’s duck and New Zealand Shoveler. The report says the implication that man “was present at Poukawa before 3400 years Before Present (BP) has evoked considerable controversy […] and McFadgen, while clarifying the stratigraphy, has not satisfactorily confirmed or refuted Price’s claims. The author then writes: “This material provides tentative support for Price’s (1965) theory that man was present at Poukawa before 1000 years BP.” Peter Horn’s involvement with the dig began when he was in primary school at Poukawa, about 1970, and he worked on identifying Poukawa bones at Canterbury Museum. He says of Russell Price: “His theories were radical (then and now), and even though he was an ‘amateur archaeologist’ with no formal training his work did become quite widely known – even outside New Zealand. I remember one Saturday we were working on the site, and across the paddocks strode a man who turned out to be Paul S Martin, a US archaeologist famous for his work on prehistoric overkill of megafauna in north America. There were members of the New Zealand scientific fraternity who gave Russell lots of support (Ron Scarlett, Allan Pullar, and Athol Rafter). However, to most New Zealand archaeologists, Russell was an irritation. I don’t know whether this was because he was an ‘uneducated, unqualified amateur’ or because his theories were at odds with the ‘truth’ at the time. However, he had a dogged determination, a thick skin, and a belief in his work, so he continued on regardless. Russell was always happy to talk with anyone about his theories and findings, and was always happy to have people visit the dig sites – whether they supported him or not.”

So did Horn see what Russell Price saw? “Yes,” he’s told elocal, “I saw (and helped excavate) split moa bones and postholes on numerous occasions, some that certainly appeared to be below an unbroken layer of the Taupo ash.” Horn says that Price was never surprised about his own vilification by the academic establishment. “Price talked often about what he termed ‘the cruelty of science’ – history is littered with the remains of individuals who had challenged current beliefs of the time only to be ridiculed, pilloried, even executed, but who had later been shown to be correct.”

Bill Buddo knew Russell Price, too. He tells elocal that Price’s interest was piqued when he found masses of moa leg bones, minus upper body bones, indicating that man had hunted them excessively at Poukawa. “The passage of discovery expanded,” Buddo tells us, “on the realisation that the Poukawa valley was unoccupied for over a thousand years before Maori came… We found Russell very careful at all stages, to make sure of what he was understanding, and we experienced his unfounded delight when carbon dating confirmed his theories. He was well aware he needed to leave a good trail [of evidence] behind him: this he did by leaving 30 cm of untouched ground between each dug square, for others to investigate/confirm later.” Buddo says that Price “loved what he was doing; the voyage of discovery gave him much pleasure which he shared openly and willingly, and we shared his bitter disappointment at the opposition to his meticulous work, an opposition that ignored blatant and proven facts.”

What became of it all? Russell Price handed over 22,000 bird bones to Te Papa, and he died unrecognised, until now. There is a growing movement in New Zealand which recognises pioneers like Price, a movement with a simple goal – The Truth – as we plunge ahead in the search for our tangata whenua.