Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Limestone cowboys

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The giant hunters' lineage

Last week Radio New Zealand exposed a group digging illegally & dangerously for the bones of a mythical race of ancient white giants in the Limestone Country west of Huntly. Since then, many commentators have decided that the diggers must be insane victims of the conspiracy culture that thrives in our internet era. The view of the giant hunters as modern & anomalous is understandable, but it is badly mistaken.
As strange as it might sound, the group digging for ancient bones near Huntly are part of a mainstream tradition in Western thought & scholarship. A century ago nearly every scholar of New Zealand history held some of the assumptions of today's giant hunters. They believed in higher & lower races, thought human progress came through cultural diffusion, as the higher races spread across the globe and conquered lower races, & researched by ransacking Maori wahi tapu & traditions.
If we look, for example, at Percy Smith & Elsdon Best's massively influential theory of the Moriori as the original people of New Zealand, & if we look at the way they gathered for evidence for that theory, then we can find obvious precedents for the work of today's pseudo-historians.
Smith & Best believed that a primitive & cannibalistic Melanesian race called the Moriori arrived in New Zealand, before being displaced by the more advanced Maori, who were in turn, of course, colonised by Pakeha. Their theory implied racial hierarchies & development by diffusion & conquest.
Like today's pseudo-historians, Smith & Best appropriated fragments of Maori oral history, & used these to justify their ideas about history. Their claim that the stories about an ancient North island iwi called Maruiwi concerned Moriori was as incoherent as the giant hunters' claim that the patupaiarehe featured in Maori tales were ancient Pakeha.
Smith & Best were far more sophisticated than today's pseudo-historians, & they did not, so far as I'm aware, desecrate ancient sites. But many cruder scholars of their era did. Andreas Reischek, for example, looted burial caves across Te Ika a Maui.
New Zealand was no exception in the early 20th century. Across the west, race-based scholarship ruled. In Nazi Germany this scholarship was perfected. Reischek & Smith would have loved to be members of the Ahnennerbe, the army of archaeologists, folklorists, & linguists that Himmler despatched to places like Tibet & Sweden in search of evidence of the glorious history of the Aryan race.
There are parallels between the expeditions Himmler organised & some of the grand scholarly research projects in New Zealand & the Pacific. The Bayard Dominick expeditions to the Pacific in the '20s, for example, were sponsored by a US broker who suspected that an 'advanced', non-Polynesian people had been responsible for the stone monuments found on islands like Tonga & Rapa Nui.
Over the last five decades or so New Zealand archaeologists have done a superb job of professionalising & decolonising their discipline. There is no prospect, today, that they would be duped by white supremacist giant hunters. But the same can't be said for other disciplines.
Last year the New York Times ran a long, well-researched, & very disturbing article about the way one of the world's top academic laboratories has been using DNA obtained from bones acquired at ancient Pacific archaeological sites.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus' essay focused on a high-profile 'discovery' that scientists made while examining bones from Teouma, the oldest burial site on Vanuatu. According to the lab run by the acclaimed US geneticist David Reich, these bones belonged only to the Lapita ancestors of today's Polynesians.
On the basis of their DNA 'result' from Teouma, Reich decided that a more advanced Lapita people must have settled Vanuatu, then spread their culture to less advanced Melanesians.
But Lewis-Kraus revealed that the Teouma interpretation was based on equivocal results taken from tests on only a few of the bones in the cemetery. Lewis-Kraus slammed David Reich for the racialist, 19th century argument he and his lab built on such a thin foundation of fact.
David Reich & the team at his lab are not racist crackpots, but for various reasons, which Smith describes, they've deployed the same methods & drawn the same sort of conclusion as people like Percy Smith & today's giant-hunters in New Zealand.
The racialist scholarship of the 19th & early 20th century was disastrous for Maori. It led to the desecration of wahi tapu & to negative stereotypes. It was also subtly assimilated by some Maori scholars. Ngata, Buck & Haare Hongi all absorbed some racialist ideas from Pakeha.
More recently the scholarship of Reich & his lab has had deleterious effects in Vanuatu. It has perpetuated the notion that the nation's Melanesian majority is somehow culturally backward, & it has obscured the way Lapita-Polynesian & Melanesian peoples interacted & blended.
When we treat the contemporary white supremacist pseudo-archaeologists as crazy outliers, we stop ourselves from thinking about our own intellectual history, & miss the ways that racialist ideas are still seeping into some research on the Pacific. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Baker's children

Radio New Zealand has been exposing a group of pseudo-archaeologists searching for the bones of mythical white giants in the Limestone Country west of Huntly. The diggers believe that these giants were the real tangata whenua of NZ, & that a complex conspiracy involving academics, museum curators, government, & Maori has hidden evidence of the ancient giant civilisation from the public.

The Limestone Country's spurs & caves & gullies have long inspired elaborate delusions & eccentric schemes. After World War One the wealthy British migrant Charles Alma Baker bought a swathe of the country west of Huntly, named it Limestone Downs, & tried to turn it into a laboratory for his mystical & racialist ideology.

In the early '20s, when Baker was establishing a vast farm at Limestone Downs, notions of the sacred destiny of the 'British race' where common in NZ. Both the PM Massey & his governor general Lord Jellicoe were British Israelites; they considered Britons a lost tribe of Israel.

Baker shared the widespread belief in the special character & destiny of the British race; he also shared the common worry that the race was becoming 'degraded', as a result of industrial civilisation, miscegenation, & unselective breeding. Limestone Downs was his solution.

Influenced by Rudolf Steiner's creed of Anthroposophy, which taught that white skin was a sign of spiritual maturity, & by eugenicist groups like the Plunket Society & Cora Wilding's Sunlight League, Baker decided that he would create a supply of purified food from Limestone Downs that would replenish the white race.

Subsidised by the state, Baker recruited teams of Dalmation labourers to clear the scrub & bush that covered much of Limestone Downs. The Dalmatians were housed in a coastal kainga whose Maori inhabitants had succumbed to the 1918 flu pandemic.

Once the land was cleared, Baker stocked it with sheep & cattle, & set up a series of experimental horticultural plots. His planting schedule was influenced by the position of cosmic bodies like the sun & moon. Occult mineral preparations were sprinkled across his soil.

In the 1930s, as eugenic groups like the Sunlight League flourished in NZ & thousands of kids suffered sunburn in the interest of racial health, Baker became increasingly obsessed with heliology. He wandered naked across his vast estate, with his arms raised to the sacred sun. He believed that the light might make him immortal.

Baker died in 1941, & a trust was set up to run Limestone Downs. His mystical ideas about farming & race had turned the estate into a zone of weeds & scrub; his inheritors soon turned to more conventional methods. Today the Downs is a huge commercial farm. The bleakness left by Baker has been replaced by the bleakness of bare green paddocks & kilometres of wire.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020


I've talked about white supremacism for Maori TV's Te Ao show, which is available online here. There's more to say. My book This Is Us: a Short Illustrated History of White Supremacism in New Zealand will be published in June of this year by Atuanui Press.