Are New Zealand’s standing stones and tors part of an elaborate network of survey points and astronomical observatories built by an ancient Celtic culture? Or were the Phoenicians the first to settle Aotearoa? Before the 200AD Taupo eruption, people from this Mediterranean culture lived beside Lake Taupo, where they built pyramid-style houses and carved rock faces. Well, that’s what some people say. At a recent NZ Skeptics conference, “alternative archaeology” was among the woo-woo – including 20th-century food fads, quack medical treatments and the evolution vs creation “debate” – subjected to scientific scrutiny.
Richard Walter, a University of Otago archaeology professor who spoke at the conference, says archaeological and other evidence tells us the first people to settle New Zealand were Polynesian seafarers who arrived just before 1300AD. “We know they came from Polynesia because Maori is a Polynesian language and because artefacts from the earliest archaeological sites in New Zealand – stone adzes, fishhooks and personal ornaments – are identical to those from archaeological sites of a similar age in Tahiti, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia.”
Abel Tasman sighted the coast of New Zealand in 1642, and in 1769 James Cook arrived. European settlement followed. That’s the basic story we know, but it doesn’t stop alternative theories popping up all the time, says Walter. Alongside claims that Ancient Celts and Phoenicians settled New Zealand are stories of early Chinese, Egyptian and even alien arrivals. How do archaeologists treat these sorts of claims? There are three questions to ask, says Walter. “Does the evidence exist? Does it have the properties claimed of it? And is the explanation offered the best possible explanation?” Some of the alternative archaeological “evidence”, like the Kaimanawa wall that some claim as evidence of an ancient pre-Maori civilisation, has been debunked. Geologists say the wall is a natural phenomenon, with the symmetrical blocks formed by fractures that appeared when the volcanic rock cooled, more than 300,000 years ago. The trouble with assessing some of these theories is that the people claiming them often “don’t practise any sound, rational or reasoned approach”, says Walter. “And that’s proved very difficult to deal with; these are non-falsifiable theories. That lack of reason is a big problem for us.”
The progenitors of ancient-race theories might be guilty of bad science, says Walter, but they believe what they say. Not so with the some of the alien theorists, who profit from book sales and lecture tours. “I think the people promoting the notion of an alien prehistory are pretty much just in it for the money.” Aliens aside, there are some “interesting mysteries”, he says, like the 16th-century Tamil bell, a bronze bell found in a Maori village by William Colenso in the 1830s, or the similarly aged Spanish helmet found in Wellington Harbour. But it’s not enough to rewrite history, says Walter, and say that Tamils visited New Zealand, or that Maori are descended from a lost caravel – a Spanish exploration ship – as some people claim.
“You’ve got a huge body of evidence that Maori came from Polynesia, and you’ve got a Spanish helmet. The biggest problem with alternative theories is that they place responsibility on the archaeologist to disprove them, but they don’t deal adequately with the big body of knowledge we already have. You can’t just selectively cherry-pick your data.” And there’s racism behind some of these claims. “There is an underlying assumption with many of these theories that Polynesians are incapable of achievement unless they have some type of European ancestry … most of these alternative theories are about denying Maori their past and trying to attribute it to some ‘higher’ race.”
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