Matthew Dentith has a difficult job: the University of Auckland philosophy student and part-time lecturer is writing his PhD thesis on conspiracy theories. Matthew grew up in Devonport, in the shadow of the earthworks and navy barracks of North Head, and his interest in strange ideas was piqued by the persistent speculation that the Head's network of tunnels and caves contained secret, sealed-up rooms filled with dismantled Boeing aeroplanes and live explosives.
Matthew has gradually complemented his investigations into cryptoarchaeology with studies of other weird pieces of flora and fauna found deep in the forest of conspiracy theory. UFOlogists, Obamaphobes, and anti-semites have all been grist for Matthew's blog
, and for The Dentith Files, the Sunday morning show he runs on BFM.
Early last month on BFM Matthew discussed
the outbreak of anti-semitic conspiracy theory on Karyn Hay and Andrew Fagan's talkback show, and referred to the vigorous debates between Hay and her detractors which filled
the comments boxes
of this blog.
Last Sunday Matthew and I discussed my open letter to the editor of The Franklin E Local
about that magazine's attempts to persuade its readers that white people are the real tangata whenua of Aotearoa. You can listen to the interview here
While Matthew and I were gasbagging, proud ancient Celt Martin Doutre was nailing twenty-nine questions to the discussion board
of the Scoop Review of Books
, in response to my open letter and to other criticisms of his ideas. Doutre wants to restrict other participants in the Scoop
discussion to 'Yes/No' answers, presumably because he yearns to cry 'Gotcha!' when he finally forces participants in the gigantic anti-Celt conspiracy to answer 'Yes' to the questions from the prosecutor's bench.
Really, though, answering 'Yes' to many of Doutre's questions proves nothing about the Celtic New Zealand thesis, unless one also accepts a series of premises which Doutre holds.
Take, for instance, Doutre's question about whether the Auckland War Memorial Museum holds red hair samples found in rock shelters in the Waitakeres. A 'Yes' answer to this question doesn't necessarily support the claim that Celts lived in the Waitakeres in ancient times: it is not only Europeans who can have red hair, and in any case the colour of an individual's hair can change after death. (I would point out to Martin that the hair of a lot of the Egyptian mummies is red, but I fear that he would simply reply to this by asserting that the ancient Egyptians were Celts.)
Another pointless Doutre question concerns the possibly non-Maori skull recently discovered in the Wairarapa and dated at three hundred and fifty years old. As I noted
a couple of months back, it's possible, though not probable, that this skull came from a European who arrived in the North Island before Cook.
But how exactly does the fact that a European woman might have been knocking round in the North Island in the 1600s prove that Celts arrived here in massive numbers five thousand years ago and built a huge advanced cilivisation, complete with universities and observatories?
It's interesting to reflect on the Wairarapa skull, because the case actually undermines Doutre's claims about a gigantic conspiracy to suppress New Zealand history. The skull was discovered, examined by a coroner, and sent off for radiocarbon dating and examination by three specialists. It is now being looked after by a museum curator in the Wairarapa, who is consulting with local iwi. Further tests are likely.
The curator who is holding on to the skull is quite open-minded about its origins - he has cited the legend of Rongotute, a European ship which is supposed to have been wrecked somewhere on the south coast of the North Island a few decades before the arrival of Cook, as possible support for the idea that the skull really did belong to a white woman who lived here three hundred and fifty years ago. On the other hand he acknowledges that radiocarbon dating does not deal well with the relatively recent past, that the craniologists were divided on whether the skull is Maori or non-Maori, and that even if the tests were accurate and the skull is European that doesn't prove the European was living here in the 1600s - after all, it was reasonably common for better-off nineteenth century European settlers to keep old skulls as ornaments in their lounges and studies.
All in all, we don't have a very effective conspiracy here, do we? If Martin Doutre's view of the world were at all accurate, then a crack team from the United Nations/Ministry of Maori Affairs would have turned up at Masterton Museum in the ninja suits, confiscated the skull, and buried it in some obscure place, or better still blown it up. Radiocarbon tests would never have been allowed, and craniologists would never have been permitted to inspect the skull.
There are numerous other examples of controversies about Kiwi prehistory which would never have been allowed to happen, if the conspiracy Doutre complains about so often really existed. Doutre is keen to point Scoop Review of Books
readers towards a rambling article
on the One New Zealand Foundation website written by his mate, 'Dr' Kerry Bolton.
Bolton's piece is supposed to be a discussion of the controversy which has raged
since the radiocarbon test Richard Holdaway did back in the nineties on some kiore bones found in the Hawkes Bay. Holdaway's bones were found to be about eighteen hundred years old, upsetting the idea that New Zealand was not settled until about one thousand years ago.
If Doutre and Kerry Bolton were right about a huge conspiracy to suppress history, then the debate about Holdaway's findings would never have occurred. The reason why Holdaway's tests have proved controversial is not because they challenge a politically correct team of control freaks, but because they contradict a lot of the hard evidence we have that shows humans made little or no impact on the environment of these islands before about a thousand years ago.
Kerry Bolton is keen to associate himself with Richard Holdaway, but he doesn't seem to realise that Holdaway actually accepts the evidence that no significant population of humans existed here until about a thousand years ago. From the time he first published his test results, Holdaway has said that he thinks that the people who brought kiore here in the third century either died off quickly, or else 'dropped their rats off and left'. Holdaway's writings on the rat bone controversy give no support at all to Bolton and Doutre's thesis that white people arrived here thousands of years ago in large numbers.
There is a certain pathos in the way that Bolton and Doutre on the one hand condemn academics and museum workers, and insist that these people are part of an enormous conspiracy, and on the other hand try desperately to associate themselves with any scholar they think might be halfway sympathetic to the Celtic New Zealand thesis. In my open letter I pointed out the way that Doutre and co. misused the writing of Paul Moon and the archaeological work of Michael Taylor to suggest that both these people are in some way supportive of the notion that Celts are the tangata whenua of New Zealand. Bolton's attempt to associate himself with Holdaway is no less pathetic.
The Celtic New Zealand circle also seems to have a curious desire to associate itself with Maori oral tradition and contemporary Maori opinion, in spite of its members' frequent outspoken attacks on Maori.
Doutre argues that Elsdon Best somehow endorsed the theory that whites settled New Zealand thousands of years ago because Best believed that a Melanesian people populated New Zealand hundreds of years before Maori. (How exactly, I wonder, would this follow, even if Best had the authority Doutre claims for him? The last time I checked, the peoples of places like Vanuatu and the Solomons didn’t look a great deal like folks from Ireland and Brittany.)
Best’s claim that Melanesians got to New Zealand first, and were then driven to remote regions of the North Island and to the Chathams, was based upon a misunderstanding of Maori oral history and physiology (unlike Doutre, Best had the excuse of being a pioneer in New Zealand ethnology; we shouldn’t, then, treat his failures in the way we treat the wilful ignorance of the Celtic New Zealand circle).
Best mistakenly thought that the the ‘Maruiwi’ tribe, which existed hundreds of years ago in the North Island but later morphed into other groups (Maori social organisation could be quite fluid) was the same thing as the ‘Moriori’ people who are the tchakat henu (tangata whenua) of the Chatham Islands (Rekohu and Rangiaora).
In fact, Moriori were a group of early Maori who left the northern South Island around the fourteenth century and lived in isolation on the Chathams until 1791, when the first Europeans visited the island. In that time, they developed a distinct culture which both harks back to and extends the achievements of archaic Maori culture.
David Simmons dissected Best’s erroneous use of Maori oral tradition in his 1975book The Great New Zealand Myth
. Like Doutre and Kerry Bolton today, Best tended to select bits and pieces of oral tradition that suited his preconceptions and interpret them literally. Thus he accepted the part of the Maruiwi story that said the tribe were the first people in New Zealand, but ignored the part which said that the Maruiwi came from a homeland to the southwest of New Zealand, where there is nothing but water. Maori oral tradition is fascinating and rich in insights, but it should not be treated as a literal guide to the past, anymore than King Lear
should be taken as a straightforward guide to ancient Britain.
Today, Doutre and Bolton are happy to trumpet some aspects of some oral traditions as literal truth, but ignore others that obviously don’t fit their claims about a white tangata whenua. For example, they refer to legends of a pale-skinned fairy folk as literal truth, but ignore the legends which say that Maori were preceded in parts of New Zealand by hairy half-men. If Doutre and Bolton were consistent, they would have to argue that bigfoot, as well as Celts, inhabited New Zealand in ancient times.
There’s also the inconvenient fact that some iwi have traditions which say they emerged straight from the earth in their rohe, and are therefore autochthonous as well as indigenous. It’s hard to square such stories with claims that Maori arrived a few hundred years ago to find an advanced Celtic civilisation which had been flourishing for millenia.
Perhaps the most bizarre expression of the Celts' 'love-hate' attitude to serious scholarship and to Maori tradition comes in Kerry Bolton's booklet Ngati Hotu: the White Warrior Tribe
. This text repeats all the usual stories about a conspiracy to suppress white history by politically correct academics and troublemaking Maoris, and then segues into a celebration of the fact that the Waitangi Tribunal's Pouakani Report
has supposedly acknowledged that white people lived in the central North Island in prehistoric times. At one moment the scholars who make up the Tribunal's research team are anti-white racists, and in the next they are revealing the hidden history of the white race to the world.
What the Pouakani Report
actually does is discuss Ngati Hotu as an early tribal grouping in the central North Island. The Tribunal does not offer one word of support for Bolton and Doutre's belief that the Ngati Hotu were a remnant of a Celtic people who sailed to New Zealand thousands of years ago, invented the hei tiki and the carved meeting house, built observatories and established universities, and were eventually driven into the hinterlands of the country by a few wakaloads of arrivals from Polynesia.
On the radio last Sunday Matthew and I kicked around the idea that the Celtic New Zealand thesis is a sort of ironic unconscious homage to the cultural achievements of Maori and the political achievements of the Maori renaissance of recent decades. Bolton's attempt to associate himself with the Waitangi Tribunal he despises shows how weird and ironic the homage can be.