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Ngā Tohuwhenua Mai Te Rangi: A New Zealand Archeology in Aerial Photographs

Pā—age and origins

Pā—age and origins

Te Rangihiroa, Sir Peter Buck, author of The Coming of the Māori, 26 the standard 1940s account of Māori migration and history, wrongly thought that pā were invented in New Zealand. Les Groube and Roger Green have investigated the Polynesian origins of pā. 27 Roger Green's conclusions about the wider Polynesian origins of pā are now generally accepted by archaeologists. He concluded that pā were in universal use throughout Polynesia, and would not have been invented or independently developed in New Zealand. Similar fortifications were well known in the nineteenth century, for example in Fiji, where European colonial forces were often forced to attack them. From archaeological sources, they are known in Fiji, Rapa, Hawaii, the Marquesas, Samoa and Tonga. 28 They are not known in the Cook Islands, nor Tahiti, nor the wider Society Islands. The use of fortifications in the nineteenth century and earlier in Fiji is well documented. An example of a fortification is the 'square ring-ditch' fortification, named Navuso, on the Rewa River delta, Fiji. 29 The photograph shows the pā lying on the higher flood-free bank of the river amongst a modern crop probably of sugar cane. Despite the greater antiquity of settlement and population densities of any of these islands compared with New Zealand, fortifications are not as frequent in the landscape as they are in New Zealand.

Roger Green argued that the similarity between Fijian, Tongan, Samoan and New Zealand fortifications resulted from a common ancestral tradition of warfare from or within fortifications. The absence of such fortifications in the Cook or Society Islands appears to be an anomaly, because they have the greatest cultural affinities of any Polynesian society with New Zealand Māori.

On the other hand, other relatively close neighbours of New Zealand and the Society Islands, such as Rapa in the Austral archipelago, 30 are famous for their hilltop fortifications.

Were pā present from earliest times in New Zealand, or were they a response to population pressure and conflict over resources later (as is sometimes assumed) in the pre-European period? Theory suggests that the conflict may be about resources, but as we have also seen it may be about conflicts over mana expressed in the control of abundant resources. If the latter, we would expect pā in earliest times in New Zealand. Much of the argument revolves around the empirically established age of pā compared with other forms of archaeological site. If it could be conclusively proven that the oldest pā were younger in age than other types of site, for example middens, then a case could be made for independent invention of pā in New Zealand—an empirical problem without an easy resolution.

The dating of fortifications by radiocarbon is not a simple task. In the case of a meal of shellfish or moa, the animal has died not long before it was eaten, and the refuse of the meal itself (shell, bone) is 'directly' dated. Such direct dating is not possible when taking radiocarbon samples from the fortifications of a pā. Instead charcoal or shell from layers either preceding or sealing off (later than) the fortification must be dated. This is not always possible because of the way layers are created in archaeological sites and revealed in the course of archaeological investigation. The date is invariably either before or after the feature needing to be dated. Furthermore, pā are often reworked, particularly in favoured locations, destroying earlier evidence of age of a more direct kind. The case for an earlier age for fortification can be made indirectly, however. Where pā have been dated satisfactorily—all too rarely—there are occasionally dates very much earlier for features of the site not positively related to fortification. It is not unreasonable to accept that these are related to settlement on a spot chosen in part for its defensive potential. A recent critical review of the radiocarbon data has settled on an age of about 1500 (i.e., 450 years B.P.) for the earliest pā, 31 some 300 or more years later than first settlement of New Zealand.

Defensive form has also played a role, historically, in the debate about pā origins and has never been satisfactorily put to the test—or to rest. Elsdon Best's theory, sometimes revived but generally not favoured, was that page break
Navuso, a 'square ring-ditch' pā on a levee of the Rewa River, near Suva, Fiji

Navuso, a 'square ring-ditch' pā on a levee of the Rewa River, near Suva, Fiji

Three lines of defensive perimeter, square-ish in plan, surround a former village site. The innermost defended area is about 80 m across. The complexity of the fortifications is greater than that of New Zealand pā, but the concept of an area defended by earth ditches and banks is the same. The western ditches were probably water-filled; a drainage ditch runs from the outer defensive ditch south-west to the meandering stream on the south-west flank. The Rewa River is to the right and the fortification can be seen to be on the slightly elevated levee of the river, the outer eastern perimeter taking advantage of the natural terrace rise from the river.

the earliest pā were defended solely by the scarps of terraces. 32 He thought terraces were simple precursors of more elaborate ditch and bank fortifications. The argument gains purchase by the fact that both the front slope and rear of a terrace, the 'scarps', are steeper than the general run of the slope into which they are cut, giving them some defensive value. Pā such as Ōtātara or Hikurangi near Taradale in Hawke's Bay (see chapter 11) have very small ditch and bank defences and were deemed to be earlier than the other pā with fuller ditch and bank systems.

Chapter 2 reviewed the ways in which human settlement is manifested in the historical landscape, and the importance and difficulty of recognising the pattern of smaller settlements, all too often neglected in field studies, were stressed. In this chapter, we have considered the largest units of settlements—pā and their associated features. As James Cook so clearly described, pā were constructed physically to keep out attackers from the defended area and its inhabitants. Māori had elaborate techniques for constructing ditches, palisades and fighting stages, and carefully selected places with strong natural defences and good outlooks to reduce the risk of surprise. The relationship of pā to the smaller settlements is not only difficult to depict in aerial photographs, but also virtually impossible to establish at a particular point in time. The origin, age and function of pā in settlement pattern have been a perennial theoretical problem in New Zealand archaeology. We have useful results from aerial photography about the defensive features of pā, their relationship to surrounding country, and in rare cases the arrangement of settlement within them.