A couple of weeks ago I castigated works of pseudo-history, and in particular Gavin Menzies' masterpiece of pseudo-history 1421: the Year China Discovered the World. Since then a number of pseudo-historians have turned up in the comments boxes here, to talk about how Celts or Indians or little green men discovered the place we know today as New Zealand.
One commenter, David Dray, believes that pre-Maori settlement of these islands is confirmed by the radiocarbon dating of rat bones:
Love to see you try to explain those rat bones Maps. They blow apart all the myths of the liberal intellectual establishment. That's why there's a conspiracy to keep quiet about them. The bones don't lie!
After I failed to respond promptly to his challenge, David posted a little celebration:
What about the RAT BONES Maps?
YOU have no ANSWER to those BONES!
I hate to piss on Dave's parade, but I think the case he's celebrating counts against the notion of pre-Maori settlement, and definitively disproves the claim that there exists some sort of nefarious secret society of liberal academics determined to quash research into the early settlement of these islands.
The bones David refers to belonged to a kiore, or Polynesian rat, which was dug out a remote Hawkes Bay hillside by a group of amateur archaeologists back in the '50s. One of the group noticed that the rat had been found underneath the layer of ash deposited by a volcanic eruption at Lake Taupo about eighteen hundred years ago. He placed the rat in a matchbox, and deposited it in a museum. There the critter remained for four decades, until biologist Richard Holdaway subjected it to new-fangled radiocarbon testing which seemed to confirm its vintage.
Holdaway's finding caused a sensation amongst Kiwi archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians, because it suggested that humans got to New Zealand far earlier than had been suspected. Kiore could not reach these shores without human help, but archaeological evidence for settlement trails off about 1300 AD, and analysis of pollen, seeds and other records kept by mother nature suggests that humans had not been doing much to disurb the environment much before that date. If it did arrive here about eighteen hundred years ago, then the kiore was as unsuccessful as the humans who brought it: analysis of the casing of seeds shows that marks made by rats' teeth do not appear before about 1280 AD. How, then, can Holdaway's finding be explained?
Holdaway himself has protested that he does not have the expertise to supply a detailed explanation for the anomalous kiore. He has suggested that a group of Polynesians probably arrived with some rats, dropped them off, and either returned home or died without establishing a viable colony. The rats survived, and had an impact on the populations of many indigenous species. Some other scholars have assented to this view, and tried to fill out its details, but they struggle to explain why seed casings do not show evidence that rats existed on these islands as little as eight hundred years ago.
Led by archaeologist Atholl Anderson, other scholars have aggressively disputed Holdaway's finding. Sceptics have queried the accuracy of radiocarbon dating and the veracity of the archaeologist who boxed and deposited the rat, and have asked whether the kiore bones might have been deposited under the Taupo ash layer by nefarious rabbits. Subsequent expeditions to the site of the original find have yielded up the bones of other kiore, but only above the ash layer. Radiocarbon tests on the new finds have not produced any surprises. The debate that Holdaway's find initiated is far from over.
I think that the kiore bone controversy has two lessons for pseuds like David Dray. In the first place, it shows that researchers on New Zealand history are not some sort of monolithic bloc engaged in a conspiracy of silence about key questions like the date of the first settlement of these islands. Debate about Holdaway's findings has been public, loud, and sometimes vituperative. It has raged in academic journals, at conferences, on the internet and even, on occasion, in the mainstream media.
David should also note that the kiore bones are deemed problematic by experts precisely because they collide head-on with evidence that there could not have been any more than, at best, a tiny human population on these islands until less than a thousand years ago. The massive civilisation which people like David posit would have entailed the felling of many trees and the widespread use of fire, amongst many other things. Where is the natural record of such events, if they took place more than a thousand years ago?
For a warning about 'alternative archaeology', and a thorough explanation of why it is so very unikely that Celts or Phoenicians got here before Polynesians, visit this excellent page at the Archaeological Association of New Zealand site.