Ōtuataua Stonefields

View of stonefields

Ōtuataua Stonefields (c. 1300)

Polynesian horticulturalists adapt to colder soils

Archaeologists still debate how long people have lived in New Zealand. Ongoing East Polynesian settlement probably began about 750 years ago. Recent evidence suggests that the first seafarers fetched up at Wairau Bar in the north-east of the South Island. Some settlers probably soon moved north to save tropical plants such as taro, yam, aute and tī that could not survive southern frosts.

The Ōtuataua Stonefields show how these first tropical colonists adapted to their new environment. New Zealand’s shorter growing seasons and colder mean temperatures ruled out many Polynesian staples. The settlers salvaged only a few crops - kūmara, taro, yams and gourds, all plants with short growing seasons and small or tough leaves. In the inland Bay of Islands, Palliser Bay and parts of the northern South Island they gave their crops further assistance by nurturing them in neatly laid-out stone-walled gardens. The stones warmed and mulched the soil, extending the growing season by up to a month.

Two centuries ago, Māori were still cultivating 8000 ha of volcanic stonefields around Tāmaki-makau-rau, the Auckland isthmus. Now just 160 ha of the stonefields remain. They largely fell into disuse after the early 19th-century inter-tribal Musket Wars and were swallowed up by urban sprawl. Conservationists had to fight hard even to save Ōtuataua’s 100 ha at Māngere, which was bought by the Manukau City Council with help from DOC, the Lotteries Commision and the Auckland Regional Council. On 10 February 2001, one of New Zealand’s oldest sites became its newest reserve, the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve. Here you can see Polynesian house sites, storage pits, cooking shelters, terraces, mound gardens, garden plots and garden walls as well as some 19th-century European dry-stone farm walls.

Further information

This site is item number 1 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.

Websites

Book

  • Janet Davidson, The prehistory of New Zealand, Longman Paul, Auckland, 1984

Community contributions

2 comments have been posted about Ōtuataua Stonefields

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Anonymous

Posted: 01 Aug 2019

There is no evidential basis such as radiocarbon dates for claiming that the Otuataua stonefields were occupied or in use as early as c1300 AD.

Anonymous

Posted: 01 Aug 2019

Claims that rats have been present for longer than evidence for human settlement have long been discredited and reference to this should be removed. See 4. Wilmshurst JM, Anderson AJ, Higham TFG, Worthy TH. Dating the late prehistoric dispersal of Polynesians to New Zealand using the commensal Pacific rat. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2008;105:7676–7680.