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Ancient New Zealanders

Archaeologists Reveal Details about Lifestyle of First New Zealanders

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A new study published in the international journal, PLOS ONE, has revealed new information about the diet, lifestyles and movements of the very first New Zealanders by analysing their bones and teeth.

The University of Otago-led team, examined isotopes from the bones of the Rangitane iwi tupuna prior to their reburial at Wairau Bar in 2009.  They were originally buried in three separate groups in a large village, which was first excavated over 70 years ago.  It is one of the most important archaeological sites in New Zealand because of its age and the variety of east Polynesian type artefacts found there.

 “By examining ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes present in bone collagen we were able to estimate individuals’ broad dietary makeup over a 10-20 year period prior to death. Our analysis of strontium isotopes in teeth allowed us to distinguish between people growing up in geologically different landscapes,” says Dr Rebecca Kinaston, who conducted the isotope analyses on the bones and teeth.

The isotopic analysis revealed that members of one of the groups that were studied shared similar diets and childhood origins, while individuals from the other two groups displayed highly variable diets and spent their childhood in geologically different areas to the first group.  There also appear to be cultural differences between the groups, which can be inferred from the different positions in which they were buried and the different types of grave offerings buried with them.

“Interestingly, Group 1 individuals showed a dietary trend similar to that identified in prehistoric individuals from a site in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, with both sets of people sharing a low diversity in protein sources,” Dr Kinaston says.

In contrast, dietary patterns in Groups 2 and 3 were found to be in line with individuals who spent most of their lives eating from a wide range of protein sources, for example seal, moa and other bird populations.

The study team has suggested that the first settlers in New Zealand were highly mobile, while the second and third groups may have fulfilled both a ceremonial and home base function.”

By John Black

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