History
Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

The Anaweka Estuary Waka

Polynesian Resource Center

In 2011 at Anaweka Estuary on the rugged North-Western coast of the South Island a huge storm uncovered a 6 metre section of an ocean going waka hull later carbon dated to 1400AD. This would would have been a wonderful discovery in our attempts to understand Polynesian deep water sailing, but on the side of the hull was carved a beautiful representation of a sea turtle which to its rear has a ridged line that follows the curve of the hull. But the sea turtle is animal uncommon in New Zealand waters and rarer still in Maori Art. This threw up enormous possibilities as to the origin of the canoe, but when tests revealed the timber was black matai; a New Zealand timber researchers concluded that this was the first deep inter-island sailing canoe discovered in New Zealand and its similarity to another same period canoe discovered in the Society Islands thirty years ago encouraged them to propose that this canoe travelled between Central Polynesia and New Zealand.

This ties in with other research into early Polynesian migration suggesting early Polynesians may have been able to make their way southwest to New Zealand and northeast to Easter Island because of a temporary shift in wind patterns. A research team from Australia puzzled by the answer to Polynesians ability to reach places that would have involved sailing into the wind concluded by studying ice cores, tree rings, stalagmites, and even sediments from across the region and used what they found to create a computer model to mimic conditions from the 800s to the 1600s and discovered that for a small window of time, the prevailing winds in the area around Polynesia shifted, allowing relatively easy passage to places that before were unreachable. When running the simulation, they found evidence of a change in prevailing winds for short, decades-long periods. During some of these periods, the prevailing winds would have shifted east, allowing migration to Easter Island, during others the winds would have shifted southwest, allowing travel to New Zealand. After 1300, the simulations show, the prevailing winds shifted back to their current direction, preventing further migration to such places.

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The Anaweka Estuary waka is believed to have originally been up to 20 meters long and was either double-hulled or had an outrigger, which would have allowed for the addition of a shelter. The canoe was obviously of a sophisticated design, with carved interior ribs and clear evidence of repair and reuse. The question arises did this canoe make multiple journeys to the Society Islands or other destinations in Central Polynesia. But beyond all the possible permutations and theories that this discovery will produce in the coming years my interest centers on the carving of the sea turtle itself.

The sea turtle does not appear in New Zealand art because we simply would not expect them to, being mainly a warm water animal, they do not breed on New Zealand beaches and while they are present off our coasts, but in no way are they an obvious part of New Zealand marine life, as they are in Eastern and Western Polynesia. But one explaination is that this canoe travelled back and forth between New Zealand and Central Polynesia where the sea turtle and its image is a part of the artist's repertoire. If so this gift of a great storm delivered up as if from the Ancient Polynesia Gods themselves has wrecked all our tidy little views of Polynesian ocean voyaging and punched an interesting hole in our ideas of Polynesian Art. Of course I am delighted because I can now claim second sight in that I wrote an article a year previously predicting that we would see a great find that would change our previous ideas of Maori Art. I readily admit that my prediction was 80% hope that I would live to see it as much as my certainty that it would happen.

The Anaweka Estuary Waka find continues a steady if rare insight into Polynesian Art in the centuries before European Contact, New Zealand is uniquely blessed in Polynesia for its cave, swamp and beach finds that have provided a steady trickle of objects; the Kaitaia lintel, the Okai Flat Godstick, the Monk's Cave dog and now the Anaweka Estuary Turtle, that give us a glimpse of an art far richer, diverse and more than we would imagine if we only had Contact Period and later objects to go by. With Maori Art especially that developed curvilinear design and exuberant surface decoration that ultimately destroyed the sculptural quality of Maori Art, to see beyond Classical Maori Art to the earlier form that is strongly sculptural, refined and breath-takingly original can only raise questions of how superior these earlier forms really were and leave us wondering if this is true of Polynesian Art in general. Of Archaic Art in the rest of Polynesia it is almost non-existent, and in New Zealand we only have tiny scrapes, yet how can it be that when nature or luck deliver us up another gem the obvious aspects that stand out are originality and quality. The conclusion must be that originality and quality were the norm. Again I cannot help but remember Terence Barrow's expressed thought that Polynesia was a culture past its peak when Europeans invaded the Pacific. If we look at the art of Western Polynesia of Tonga and Samoa there is an inescapable conclusion that compared with Easter Polynesia there art was in an advanced state of decline. Taking the argument further and comparing Eastern Polynesia with the distant points of the Polynesian Triangle of Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand the quality and originality seemed to seep away from the center while being maintained on the outer fringes. But insights into the Archaic in New Zealand perhaps suggest that even out on the edges a slow decay and decline had set in. Perhaps a thousand years before the Contact Period Samoa had a rich carving tradition, a tradition there was not the slightest sign of by James Cook's time. Polynesians were all the same genetic stock, it seems unthinkable that Samoans were not just as capable of producing great sculptural Art. At the Contact Period their art was social art of display and body art more to do with maintaining a heavy weight of social elites. In other words this intransigent social structure suffocated artistic vitality. However, none of this should be thought to imply that Polynesian Art at the Contact Period and beyond was not magnificent, merely that it possibly was more magnificent in the past, a proposition that could be applied to all tribal art.

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However, there is one last point that may hold an explaination for the sea turtle carving on the hull of the Anaweka Estuary Waka, one possibly less welcome to the researchers who proposed that it signified that this waka was involved with New Zealand/Central Polynesian voyaging. The sea turtle like the shark and many other creatures in Western and Eastern Polynesia was used as a family totem, a protective spirit held sacred to that family alone. There is a tradition amongst Maori of the Great Migration of named canoes, canoes whose inhabitants went on to form the nucleolus for the great tribes to which many Maori today still belong. The myth of the Great Migration is exactly that; a myth, but one that probably contains a grain of truth, and that truth is that the tribes originally belonged to one family who migrated from somewhere in Central Polynesia. If this is so then their family totem would have travelled with them and been retained for possibly many generations. This waka quite possibly belonged to a tribe who were the literally the people of the sea turtle, therefore nothing would be more natural than that they would carve a sea turtle on the hull of their waka, which then subsequently went nowhere near the Society Islands of anywhere else in Central Polynesia.

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It should be remembered that around this period the Chatham Islands were discovered and occupied, and there is evidence of the exploration of the Sub-Antarctic Islands south of New Zealand. In fact if we look at the location of the Anaweka Estuary, it is perfectly placed for exploration voyages through Cooks Strait out towards the Chathams or South to the Auckland Islands or for probing into the Tasman Sea towards Australia. If the researchers are wrong in it being one half of a double hulled canoe, but rather the main hull of a single or double outrigger canoe then shorter voyages of exploration were its purpose, with less crew and no passengers such as would be surely the case with a double hull canoe. So in the excitement caused by this find, a little caution is required and my prediction that it will pose more questions about Polynesian long range voyaging than it provides answers will prove a sobering fact. However, of one thing we can be sure the sea turtle carved on its hull has joined the body of the great sacred relics of Maori Archaic Art.

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