The discovery of ancient kumara pits just north of Dunedin dating back to the 15th century have shone a light on how scientific evidence can complement mātauranga Maori around how and where the taonga were stored hundreds of years ago.
A new study published in the science journal PLOS ONE reports that early Polynesians once stored kumara – American sweet potato – in pits dug into sand dunes at Purākaunui, eastern Otago, less than 30km north of Dunedin. The pits were first discovered in 2001 and are found over 200km south of the currently accepted South Island limit of cooler-climate Māori kumara storage.
These Purākaunui features have the novel form of semi-subterranean, rectangular pits used for the cool seasonal storage of live kumara roots in bulk, known as rua kumara. Research into their age, contents and context has been led by Associate Professor Ian Barber of the University of Otago’s Archaeology Programme with the support of university grants and a Marsden award, and the input of radiocarbon expert and co-author Professor Tom Higham of Oxford University.
The research was carried out with the approval and engagement, through successive hui, of Purākaunui Block owners and Kāti Huirapa Runaka ki Puketeraki as manawhenua.
In this historic study, statistical modelling has dated the Purākaunui pits by radiocarbon to the very tight range of 1430-1460 CE at 95% probability, making it some of the most accurate carbon dating to have taken place in New Zealand thanks to advanced technology. Researchers believe rua kumara were stored there due to the discovery of microscopic starch granules with distinctive kumara characteristics from secure deposits at the base of the pits.
The find, Polynesia’s southern-most ancient kumara dicovery adds incredible weight to local Māori oral history and tradition that has been considered enigmatic if not overlooked by archaeologists. A number of these traditions refer to southern kumara loss or failure, but some reference kumara memories, atua (deities), stores and cultivations notably from the North Otago Huriawa Peninsula headland and pā less than 30km north of Purākaunui. Ancient rua kumara discovered along the same coastline represent an intriguing connection between these traditions and archaeology.
Purākaunui Block Incorporation chairperson Nicola Taylor says there is significant excitement surrounding the significant research.
“This confirms for us at Purākaunui the importance of our very long history and connection with the land,” she says.
“These findings reinforce our very long association with the land and contribute to our own compilation of stories designed to capture the history for future generations.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Kāti Huirapa Runaka ki Puketeraki manager Suzanne Ellison.
“Ian’s research has been really interesting for the Runaka to follow & with the confirmation via carbon dating of the kumara pit at Purākaunui, it is very affirming about traditions and mātauraka relating to Huriawa Peninsula,” Ellison says.
Associate Professor Barber says the study highlights the important connection between te ao Māori and traditional archaeological practices.
“We hope to have modelled respect as much as science in the engagement of Māori knowledge and archaeology,” he says.
Associate Professor Barber says there are some questions that still remain about whether the stored kumara roots were imported from warmer northern localities or harvested locally in microclimate production.
“However the dark, sandy archaeological soil at Purākaunui suggests it may have been used for ancient cultivation.”
In either case, this discovery represents the earliest securely dated rua kumara in Aotearoa. It joins a small number of examples of American kumara in Polynesia dated securely before explorer Christopher Columbus’ navigations. He says the tight chronology also identifies and places the rua kumara storage at around the time of moa extinction, perhaps as mitigation for the loss of this valuable food source.
Header Image Credit : University of Otago