Saturday, October 4, 2014

600-year-old Polynesian voyaging canoe found on New Zealand's South Island

For Polynesian canoe culture, the New Zealand discovery of part of a 600-year-old voyaging canoe is the equivalent of finding King Tut’s tomb.

The only other comparable discovery was when Bishop Museum’s Yosi Sinoto in the late 1970s found the remains of a voyaging canoe at Fa`ahia on the French Polynesian island of Huahine. 

(Image: The carving of a turtle is visible on the hull of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe found on New Zealand’s South Island. (Credit: Tim Mackrell / The University of Auckland.)

And that’s it. There are virtually no other large surviving parts of Polynesian voyaging canoes.

The latest discovery was written up in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by authors Dilys Johns, Geoffrey Irwin and Yun Sung, all of the University of Auckland. The title: “An early sophisticated East Polynesian voyaging canoe discovered on New Zealand’s coast.

From a single plank nearly 20 feet long, presumably from above the keel on the back half of the canoe hull, a great deal of information was extracted. 

Two of the most fascinating features: A raised relief turtle carved into the outside of the hull; And both ribs and longitudinal stringers carved into the plank, presumably for strength but in the case of the stringer, for lashing internal frameworks.

The plank was found among driftwood after a storm on the east South Island inlet of Anaweka.

“The canoe dates to approximately A.D. 1400 and was contemporary with continuing interisland voyaging. It was built in New Zealand as an early adaptation to a new environment, and a sea turtle carved on its hull makes symbolic connections with wider Polynesian culture and art,” wrote the authors.

The canoe was built of a New Zealand tree called matai (Prumniopitys taxifolia). There were holes around the perimeter of the plank for lashing. While Hawaiian canoes were generally carved of a single hull with upper parts lashed to them, many South Pacific island groups made canoes of multiple planks that were lashed together.

The plank apparently had been safely buried in the sand dune along a freshwater stream for a long time. There was still caulking material in four of the lashing holes, made of the bark of the totara (Podocarpus totara). 

The inside of the hull showed adz marks, but the outside was smoothly polished. The hull was carbon dated to as early as the middle 1200s, but that would have been the age of the tree used to make the plank, not the age of the canoe. The caulking dated to the middle 1300s to as late as 1410.

Polynesians are believed to have arrived in New Zealand around 1200. The Anaweka canoe shows that they continued to voyage and built canoes locally once they arrived. 

“The canoe is contemporary with early archaeological settlements around New Zealand and on-going voyaging between Polynesian islands,” the authors said. In recreating the entire canoe from the shape of the stern plank, the researchers assume the canoe had been in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 feet long. There were signs of repairs, indicating it had been used over an extended period of time, and fixed when it broke.

“The age, location, size and sophistication of the find all suggest that it was from a sea-going sailing canoe, but the obvious question is what type of canoe it was,” the authors wrote.

What they concluded was that it may have been a very similar vessel to the one Sinoto found at Fa`ahia. 

“Radiocarbon dates from the (Fa`ahia) site indicate occupation in the period A.D. 1050-1450, in the same time range as the Anaweka canoe,” they wrote.

“The Anaweka and Fa`ahia canoes were unlikely to have been of the same design, but it is possible that they could have come from the same design tradition. In that sense, the evidence from two widely separated locations in East Polynesia are complementary,” the authors wrote.

“The Anaweka canoe was a large, sophisticated and powerful craft…last caulked around A.D. 1400…It was active on the exposed open sea coast of the South Island,” they concluded.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

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