Volume 89 1980 > Volume 89, No. 1 > A culture history of the Chatham Islands, by Douglas G. Sutton, p 67-94
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The definition of culture history assumed in this paper is particularly suitable to isolated oceanic islands where there has been limited previous archaeological research (Skinner 1923; Jefferson 1955; Simmons 1962, 1964; Richards 1962, 1972). There are four elementary issues to be dealt with. Each of these must be clearly defined if the culture history is to be well understood. They are: (1) date of first settlement; (2) geographical and cultural origin of the settlers; (3) course of cultural adaptation after settlement, with emphasis on explanation of the observed change; and (4) effects of protohistoric and other European related events upon the culture under study, again with respect to explanation of change.

This paper summarises my attempts to satisfactorily deal with these issues for the case of the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands. I should emphasise here that this is a deductive model. The field archaeology undertaken in the Chathams between 1974 and 1976 (Sutton 1977, nd.) did not have the reconstruction of a culture history as its prime objective. It was concentrated instead on synchronic evidence of 16th century occupation of the Durham area of the south-west coast of Chatham Island. Palaeoenvironmental and archaeological evidence was used in reconstructing the economic strategy used by the occupants of the Durham area during that short interval. About the four issues mentioned above, six conclusions were formed as evidence needed to interpret the Durham sites.

My conclusions are:

  • 1. The Chatham Islands have been settled for approximately the same period as New Zealand.
  • 2. Initial settlement was made by a group using one or more double-hulled voyaging canoes which travelled from New Zealand to the Chathams. No specific geographical source within New Zealand can be identified at present. However, two major possibilities are presented below.
  • 3. Secondary settlement may have occurred but only in the interval
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  • before about A.D. 1400. Even then arrivals were from New Zealand only, and they were very infrequent.
  • 4. A stable coastal hunting strategy was developed soon after settlement. This involved very substantial changes in economy and social structure. These changes occurred well before A.D. 1500.
  • 5. In developing a coastal hunting economy Moriori culture became a highly successful adaptation to the Chatham Islands. Success here refers to numerical increase. As far as I am able to establish at present, there were 1,663 Moriori alive in 1835, 30 years after the beginning of intensive European sealing on the islands. This suggests a late prehistoric population of about 2,000 people (Richards 1962, 1972; Simmons personal communication 1978).
  • 6. This economic base was only stable under specific conditions. Events of the protohistoric period were followed by a dramatic decline in population. The language was almost out of use by 1870 (Walters 1977). Native technology and the occupation of prehistoric settlement sites ended simultaneously about 1850 when the few remaining Moriori moved to inland locations (Richards 1962, 1972). The last Moriori died in 1933.

The death of the Moriori must now be seen as one of the major events of New Zealand history. It was an episode of the same magnitude as the extinction of the Tasmanians or the Feugians. It has received very little recent attention, except in a recent public controversy where discussion was superficial at best (Natusch 1974; Phillips 1974; Walker 1974). The Moriori extinction is strangely insulated from public concern by the teaching of corrupted Canoe traditions and related Maruiwi and Tangata whenua traditions (Simmons and Biggs 1970; Simmons 1976) in schools. These reflect late Victorian racial attitudes and not historical truth.


Evidence supporting these conclusions is presented in three sections. The first presents evidence about date of settlement and origin of the settlers. The second deals with aspects of the development of Moriori culture. The third briefly reviews the events of the protohistoric period.

Settlers: origins and dates of arrival

The Chatham Islands are separated from their nearest neighbour, New Zealand, by a stretch of open sea which is stormier and larger than the great oceanic gap between the New Hebrides and Fiji (Green 1978; Figure 1). This distance is well beyond the maximum range of two-way voyaging of 600km proposed by Green (1978: 4) and supported by Lewis' (1972) evidence of actual voyages.

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New Zealand and the Chatham Islands.
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The Levison, Ward and Webb (1973) voyage simulation study confirms the inaccessibility of the Chathams. Contact possibilities are low (1.0-4.9 percent) for one-way drift voyages to the Chathams from New Zealand. They are very low (∠1.0 percent) for voyages from the Kermadecs and negligible for voyages from other sources. The contact probabilities of reverse voyages to these and other sources are not available in the literature. However, the distances between the Chathams and all “neighbours” are so large that these would be very low, if not negligible.

It is necessary to note here that the simulation study is based on present-day climatic conditions (Levison, Ward and Webb 1973: 13-17). Wind speed and direction are most important to drift and other voyaging. However, these parameters are known to have been more severe following the Mediaeval Thrust (Figure 2) than at present. Therefore, contact probabilities would have been even lower after A.D. 1400 than before. These conditions continued to apply until at least the time of Cook's voyages (Leach, H.M. 1976).

In view of the information presented above a number of assumptions can be made. First, that one-way drift voyages from New Zealand are the most likely means of first settlement; second, that no new arrivals made landfall at the Chathams after about A.D. 1400; third, two-way voyaging resulted in little, if any, return contact. Use of double-hulled canoes in the voyage of initial settlement and any few subsequent landfalls is indicated by the distribution of oceanic canoe types (Doran 1974), and the changes in canoe styles which occurred in New Zealand during the prehistoric era (Bathgate 1969). Furthermore, the use of double-hulled canoes is made necessary by the rigours of long-distance west-east travel at this latitude where seas are of “unlimited fetch” (Anderson 1973). Campbell's (1976) record of shipwrecks in Chathams waters reinforces this point.

Independent evidence of New Zealand origin of first settlers may be seen in the linguistic data. The phylogenetic background of the Moriori language is as follows (Green 1966): the Proto-tahitic subgroup differentiated into four languages (Figure 3). These were Tahitian, Rarotongan, Tuamotuan and Maori. Moriori is regarded as a dialect of the Maori language (Biggs 1961; Green 1966; contra Williams 1919). Subgrouping of Moriori with Maori is strongly suggested by the results of Shirres' (1977) analysis of the Grey New Zealand Maori Manuscript 144. This manuscript document is the report of the Moriori Council Meeting of July 1862, written in Maori and Moriori. Shirres (1977: 13) found that, “Moriori shares with Maori, not only the same basic phonological structure, a high degree of lexical agreement and some shared lexical innovations, but also some basic syntactic innovations.. . .” However, he was

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Climatic Change in New Zealand over the Last Millennium (after Leach and Leach 1979).
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A Family Tree of Eastern Polynesian (after Green 1966).

unable “to find sufficient information to reach any definite conclusion on the relationship of Moriori to any particular Maori dialect.”

In taking this last issue further, Harlow (1979) has compared Moriori with eight North Island dialects of Maori and the South Island dialect using a 228-item list of basic vocabulary based on the Swadesh list. The South Island and Moriori lists were compiled by Harlow from the limited documentary sources. Grey NZMMS 144 was the principal source for the Moriori data. Harlow calculated percentages of shared cognancy. His data are shown in Table 1.

Two important points emerge. The first is the systematically lower shared values between Moriori and all others than between any other dialects. This is taken to reflect the long isolation of Moriori from Maori, which became effective sometime after initial settlement and before A.D. 1400. The second point is the relatively constant and high sharing levels evident between Moriori and several other dialects. Values

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  Tuhoe Ngati Tuwharetoa Waikato Ngapuhi Te Aupouri Ngati Porou Ngati Kahungunu Taranaki South Island
Ngati Tuwharetoa 76.6                
Waikato 75.4 76.1              
Ngapuhi 75.2 74.6 74.3            
Te Aupouri 75.4 73.4 75.0 84.9          
Ngati Porou 82.0 77.5 76.3 77.8 78.5        
Ngati Kahungunu 80.1 73.1 73.7 74.4 76.4 79.6      
Taranaki 74.8 74.6 77.9 74.1 75.2 76.1 78.1    
South Island 72.5 65.0 66.3 66.9 70.6 74.5 76.2 71.5  
Moriori 59.5 57.3 59.5 59.0 61.0 60.5 63.5 67.7 66.3


Percentages of Shared Cognacy between eight North Island Dialects of Maori, South Island and Moriori (after Harlow, 1979).

of above 60 percent between Moriori and Te Aupouri (61.0), Kahungunu (63.5), South Island (66.3) and Taranaki (67.7) are notable. The Taranaki value reflects influence of Ngati-Awa who invaded and conquered the Chathams in 1835. The high shared cognancy with Kahungunu and with South Island, on the other hand, tends to support Biggs' (1971: 498) suggestion that Moriori derives from some South Island or eastern North Island dialect.

Green's (1966: 31-32) report of this matter has different emphasis. He was careful to point out that:

possible linguistic evidence from some dialects in New Zealand and the Chathams that may point to contact with languages of the Marquesas rather than the Tahitian subgroups. First are the sound shifts* ng to n among the Ngati-Awa and related tribes in the Bay of - 74 Plenty, and the* ng to k shift among the Ngati-Tahu and the South Island and one dialect of MOR. The first is more likely independent and a case of convergence with SE-MQA. The second may reflect a common origin between the MOR and Ngati-Tahu as there are other linguistic features common to both and it may just possibly derive ultimately from an initial innovation in NW-MQA (emphasis mine).

Biggs, however, favours independent origin of the similarity. He (Biggs 1979) considers the* ng to k shift to be one of many instances of the regular process of sound change which has occurred within Polynesian. It is a common feature of Ngati-Tahu and Moriori but no historical explanation is possible at present, beyond Skinner's (1923) view that the origin of the initial settlers of the Chathams was from among the forebears of Southern dialect speakers. The points to be remembered from linguistic information are the subgrouping of Moriori with the Maori language and the evidence of a substantial period of isolation shown in reduced cognancy.

Early occupants of the Chathams left archaeological sites and artefacts, although very few early sites can be identified in the field and none has been excavated to date. Early evidence is known to occur in few locations: Owenga and Kaingaroa on Chatham Island, and Waipaua and Tupuangi on Pitt Island. Notably each of these locations is sheltered from the oceanic swell and high winds of the south-west quarter, and all have cove or creek mouth harbours. This suggests that canoe shelter was an important factor in their selection. The Owenga evidence is the most substantial. There are 52 whale-tooth necklace units made of ivory (Duff 1956: Plate 16A). These compare very closely with examples from Burial 2 at Wairau Bar and examples from other New Zealand locations. They are not, however, similar to the ovoid form of the same artefact type found in Raoul, Kermadec Islands, by Dr A.J. Anderson (1979: Plate 4).

Two ivory reels, two sperm whale tooth pendants (Duff 1956: Plate 16A), five reels of whale bone, an unspecified number of perforated sharks teeth and “two necklaces of whale bone imitations of porpoise teeth” (Simmons 1964) are also recorded from Owenga. The Owenga evidence was found with eroding burials (Simmons 1964).

The Archaic material from Kaingaroa includes a whale-tooth imitation unit, squared and perforated shark teeth and a whalebone fish pendant (Simmons 1962) reminiscent of the famous Okains Bay example (Duff 1956).

The Pitt Island material is not yet reported. It is held in a most important private collection on the island. Included in the collection are 60 of the 70 pieces of obsidian known from the Chathams, a long chisel in d'Urville argillite, and both hog-backed and large rectangular adzes. - 75 Some of the latter have the characteristic Archaic concavity of the ventral surface. Several examples show exceptionally fine flaking and a high proportion of polish. These features are not common in what I shall refer to as Classic Moriori assemblages. Two pieces of obsidian from the Chathams have been sourced to Mayor Island (Leach 1973). However, more recent research, using neutron activation analysis, indicates that they are from another, currently unknown, source (Leach and Warren nd.).

Additional information on artefact forms present in the Chathams, or notably absent, may be gained from published sources. Among items of jewellery, Archaic forms are well presented (Skinner and Phillips 1953), but those associated with the Classic Maori phase are largely absent.

Two well-known but rare Archaic ornament types, the chevroned amulet and the “partly divided spheres” (Duff 1956), have not yet been found in the Chathams. No historical explanation of this apparent absence is justified at present. Both forms are uncommon in New Zealand.

One most interesting presence in the island is the pendant form Skinner described as “a single bird suspended by its legs held centrally” (Skinner 1974: 63). The back of the bird in the Chathams example figured by Skinner (1974) is notched, suggesting its Archaic association (Mead 1975). Another specimen (Otago Museum No. 24.99) is shown by Skinner and Baucke (1928: Plate VIII). It is a most distinctive form not recorded from New Zealand, despite the avidity of our early artefact collectors. It is known from Tonga, the Australs and possibly the Cook Islands. Any argument for tropical origin of initial settlers would depend, at least to some extent, on the occurrence of this artefact form in the Chathams. The form is evident in some Moriori tree carvings and rock etchings, although it is inverted. Skinner (1974) suggests that it will eventually be found in New Zealand. The rei-puta, hei-tiki and pekapeka Classic ornament forms are absent, reflecting severance of contact with New Zealand before these forms were developed or common.

The pattern which is emerging, i.e., representation of most New Zealand Archaic forms and absence of later ones, is repeated in Moriori fishing gear. The kahawai lure is represented by only one example (Anell 1955: 184). The composite hook is not common. Two very large specimens (17cm and 12cm long) are shown by Skinner with two smaller examples (Skinner 1923: 84: Plate XII). Baucke's (Skinner and Baucke 1928: 360) account of Moriori fishing shows large curved and barbed hooks on a gaff. This may account for the function of the two large Skinner specimens. Baucke also illustrates hooks the same length as Skinner's two smaller specimens (3.8cm) set into a wooden barracouta lure, - 76 evidently cast on a rod (Skinner and Baucke 1928: 360). This may account for the few smaller composite hooks known from the Chathams. In any event, both size classes of the composite hook are very uncommon.

One-piece unbarbed fishhooks are predominant. These are made of marine mammal bone, cetacean ivory or stone. Tabs were recently found fashioned from seal mandibles. Examples in stone are rare but widely known. Stone fishhooks are found on the Chathams, Pitcairn and Easter Island. Seventy-nine one-piece Chatham Island fishhooks are held in Canterbury and Otago museums (Simmons 1962). My impression is that a proportion of these were pendants and not functional hooks. Line fishing methods, either trawling or bait fishing, were uncommon in Classic Moriori economies. The virtual absence of the trolling (minnow) lure (Anell 1955) is to be seen as brought about by adaptation to local sea conditions and fish populations, rather than having a simple historical explanation.

Spear types which are associated with early levels in New Zealand are represented in the Chathams, although uncommon there. More robust spear and awl types illustrated by Skinner (1923) may represent fishing activity. The toggle harpoon is represented by one example found at Matarakau in the north-east of Chatham Island (Skinner 1937). The artefact type was among the technological repertoire taken to the islands by the initial settlers but its importance declined quickly in a situation of common cetacean strandings (Gaskin 1972) and common occurrence of fur seal breeding colonies.

Handclubs from the Chathams are among the most famous components of Moriori technology. They received prominent early attention (e.g., Haast 1886). Skinner and Simmons (1974) have since documented the similarities between Maori and Moriori handclubs. They strongly suggest that the well-known late period handclubs from New Zealand and the Chathams had an immediate common ancestor in some plainer form from New Zealand (Skinner and Simmons 1974). This interpretation is found in Skinner's monograph on the Moriori (Skinner 1923: 103-8; 132).

The discovery of three whalebone patu associated with a radiocarbon date of 850 ± 70 (GAK-4629) on Huahine in the Society Islands is of importance because it may identify the more remote form. The degree of similarity between these and Chathams patu appears to have been overstated (Sinoto and McCoy 1975: 167-8). The Huahine clubs have convex distal edges which narrow (insofar as one can tell from the illustration) to a point in transverse section (Sinoto and McCoy 1975: Plate 4a). The Chathams patu of the comparable type (Skinner 1923: Plate - 77 XXIX) have flat distal edges which are square or blunt in section (Sutton, personal observation). Moreover, the grips on the Huahine specimens are more severely tapered than in the Chathams examples and their polls evidently show decoration of two points rather than of knobs or human heads which are found on comparable Chathams patu (Skinner and Simmons 1974: 164-5, 167, Figures 11.121 and 11.122). When these factors are considered, the Huahine patu may be seen as more similar to the earlier examples of New Zealand patu Types 1 and II (see examples 11.25-11.28 in Skinner and Simmons 1974: 153ff.).

Keyes (1967) has presented evidence of stylistic evolution of patu form in the Chathams and New Zealand. He argues for the use of shouldered forms at early levels as seal and moa clubs and the development later of handclub forms as weapons (Keyes 1967). Those in the weapon category are characterised by the ease with which they may be wielded. His study confirms the development of Chathams patu styles in isolation, at least from “late North island cultural development” (Keyes 1967: 14). However, the use of many Chathams patu in combat or as seal clubs is to be doubted. Skinner's (1923: Plate 32) original Groups I-IV and all stone pounders are heavy and symmetrical enough to have been used as seal clubs. But those in the other categories are either too light and delicate, where made of whalebone with lightly serrated edges, or cumbersome (Group VI) to have had any function which involves quick manipulation and percussion. They are best seen as being of use principally as evidence of status or rank.

Assymetrical patu, possibly related to the well-known Chathams form in Skinner's Group VI, are not unknown in New Zealand. In addition to an example in the Banks' collection in Stockholm (Ryden 1965; Shawcross 1970), there are at least six other examples:

  • 1. Mangakaware 1 (Anthropology Department, Auckland, Accession No. 252) wooden example (Bellwood 1978: Figure 35).
  • 2. Ovoid stone example (Bellwood 1978: 59) from Piopio in the King Country (Auckland Museum Accession No. 1869).
  • 3. South Kaipara Head wooden (Auckland Museum No. 2735) example (Bellwood 1978: 59).
  • 4. Te Awamutu Museum (Accession No. 134) sickle-shaped wooden weapons (Bellwood 1978: 59).
  • 5. Example in stone in the Nelson Museum (Sutton, personal observation) which is smaller than but close in form to the Chatham types.
  • 6. A particularly interesting wooden example from a Taranaki swamp (Prickett, personal communication 1979) held in the Taranaki Museum (Accession No. A77-203).

The conclusion to be drawn about handclubs is that all the distinctive late - 78 period New Zealand forms developed locally from a symmetrical type similar to Sinoto's examples, and that at a date before that at which mere, toki-poutangata and other Classic styles began to form the Chatham Islands were settled and an independent handclub tradition established. This developed as one dimension of a distinctive tradition in art style reflected in tree carvings, seal or bird motif rock etchings, and house plank carving (Skinner 1923). There is a very definite similarity in style between all aspects of Moriori art. It is distinct from developments of art style in New Zealand (Mead 1975) and elsewhere in the Pacific. One further piece of evidence for direct contact between tropical Polynesia and the Chatham Islands may now, I believe, be disregarded: the “marae or ceremonial centre” reported by Simmons (1964: 67). 1

The case for New Zealand origin and later isolation in the islands, beginning by about A.D. 1400, may also be made with reference to the

Diagram of Polynesian Skeletal Relationships (from Green 1974, after Pietrusewsky 1970).
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evidence from physical anthropology. Figure 4 shows generalised results of Pietrusewsky's analysis of inter-population relationships based on discrete osteological traits (see also Howells 1973: 231ff.). The Moriori are securely within the Polynesian grouping and associated most closely with samples from the marginal Polynesian islands of Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island. Historical explanation of this association inevitably follows a version of the age-area model, arguing that the phenotype represented in material from the marginal areas of Polynesia was evident among the inhabitants of the central eastern Pacific when movement to marginal areas began (Howells 1973).

On more detailed examination, Moriori skeletal remains show features which reflect origin within the range of Maori material. Taylor's (1963) classic papers on Maori-Moriori palatal form show close affinity between the two groups. Houghton's (nd.) analysis of variation in mandible form between samples from throughout the New Zealand region puts Chathams material close to that from Murihiku, separates these two from material from the Cook Strait region, and makes an even more marked separation between the Chatham Islands and material from the East Coast and a region further north. Sample sizes are, however, too limited for conclusive analysis. The highly structured pattern of regional affiliation mentioned is of considerable interest. Skinner (1923) may have been right about the Murihiku culture area as the origin of the forebears of the Moriori, but no unambiguous interpretation is possible at present.

The major characteristic of Moriori crania, however, is frontal flattening (Howells 1978). It was previously thought to have been the result of headbinding or the effect of “a racial element more primitive than the bulk of the ‘South Oceanic Races’” (Pearson 1921, quoted by Howells 1978: 198-9). It is now seen as a very distinctive feature (Howells 1978: Table 1) which developed locally “as an extreme version of one aspect of Polynesian cranial form” (Howells 1978: 202). This reflects sustained genetic isolation from the New Zealand and other Polynesian populations.

In summary, drift voyaging from New Zealand is seen as the most likely mode of initial settlement. The use of double-hulled canoes in voyages of initial settlement is suggested. A small founding population with little substantial chance of secondary settlement was involved. Rapid adaptation to the new environment resulted in adoption of a stable coastal hunting economic strategy. The founding population increased and became viable. The trajectory of this increase could be reconstructed (McArthur, Sanders and Tweedie 1977) because we now know the basic demographic parameters (age-specific fertility and mortality rates) for - 80 comparable groups living at a range of periods within the New Zealand sequence (Houghton 1975; Sutton 1979). The results obtained would have to take account of the presently accepted protohistoric Moriori high population level and time depth of the Chatham Islands sequence.

Cultural Adaptation

A process of culture change began some time after initial settlement. It involved substantial changes in economy, technology and social structure.

Economy of the late or Classic phase of Moriori culture can be assessed with reference to the Durham evidence (Figure 5), which is dated to the 16th century A.D. Here occupation centred on a single village settlement which was occupied at all seasons of the year. A maximum population of about 100 people occupying 10 rectangular gabled houses lived on the site. It was an internally organised village with a burial area, houses within a confined area, a series of discrete middens, and a large cooking area on the crest of a mound running down on to the leeward margin.

An almost continuous series of coastal middens was found along the Durham coast. One of these was a sealbone midden representing the remains of over 150 seals from four species (Smith 1977). This site was only 300 metres from Waihora. Sealing occurred at all seasons of the year, with a specialisation in slaughter of adult animals, rather than pups (Smith 1977). The other 30 or so coastal middens of the Durham area contained shellfish and little else (Sutton 1979b). They represent short recurrent intervals of gathering on the inter-tidal shore. This activity was concentrated in the summer season. Inland middens were also found. Those excavated contained the remains of large numbers of fledgling Pterodroma sp., taken en masse in the summer season. Again, recurrent short periods of exploitation were represented by the middens.

It should be noted that there are few economic species present in the excavated sites which could not be obtained from within the Durham area.

An explanation of the unusual composition of Moriori artefact assemblages reflects this economic strategy. The economic activities in descending order of importance were: sealing; capturing pelagic birds; fishing; shellfish gathering, hunting terrestrial birds and gathering plant foods.

Economic dependence on sealing is reflected in the location of the village site near the only seal breeding colony on this stretch of the coast while other more sheltered positions were not occupied. It is also evident in the importance of flake tools in Moriori lithic assemblages, at least in

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The Durham Study Area.
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the late period. The adze-rich early sites on Pitt Island present a marked contrast. Large specimens of mataa or blubber knives, as they are still known in the Chatham Islands, are important examples of a flensing tool, assumed to have been used in butchering seal carcasses. Smaller and less prepared flake tools are also likely to have been used in butchering. Large, sharp and polished adzes are uncommon in the Chathams, although, as mentioned, they are known from some early east coast sites. They are replaced in late assemblages by smaller adzes of subrectangular and lenticular section (Skinner 1923). These may be related to working skins as their effectiveness in woodworking would be limited. The small awls of bird bone which are common in the large artefact assemblage from Waihora and other Moriori collections (Skinner 1923; Skinner and Baucke 1928) are also related to skin working (Cave 1977).

The capture of pelagic birds is an activity requiring little durable technology. Wooden albatross waadi or clubs have been found on the offshore albatross colonies, and one example, from Buller's Cave on the Little Sister (Sutton 1977a), is probably prehistoric. No clubs would be required to capture fledglings of smaller petrels. They would simply be dragged from the burrows, killed by hand and preserved or eaten. Bodies would have been preserved in kelp bags (Richdale 1948) of which no trace remains. Penguins were also probably killed by hand and preserved in kelp bags or eaten immediately.

Moriori watercraft (Skinner 1919), their famous rafts, were developed in response to local sea and wind conditions as an aspect of birding rather than of fishing or voyaging technology (Skinner 1923; see also Lothrop 1932 and Jones 1976). They were broad and low in the water (Shand 1911; Skinner 1923) and therefore stable in the common high-swell conditions. They would also be particularly suitable in attempted landings on precipitous shores (Sutton, personal observation 1974-1976; Robertson, C.J.R., personal communication 1979) such as those at the albatross colonies. In the conditions of frequent wind shift and frequent high wind speeds from all quarters they were used in controlled drift voyages to the offshore albatross colonies. Sailing canoes would be disadvantaged by these conditions.

The analysis of fishbone (Sutton nd.) from excavated middens in the Durham area shows fishing to have been shore based and specialised in the use of nets, indicated by the predominance of fish species which are not readily hooked.

The importance of netting is mirrored in the scarcity of fishhooks in the excavated and museum collections. For instance, only three hooks were found at Waihora but a minimum number of over 4,000 fish from at least 20 species were identified (Sutton nd.). Some of the abraders - 83 recovered may reflect fibre preparation related to net-making.

Shellfish gathering is another activity which will leave little, if any, artefactual remains. Baskets and other organic gear used will simply not be recovered archaeologically. Evidence of hunting landbirds has been discussed elsewhere (Sutton 1979b).

Terrestrial plant foods were relatively unimportant. Only two of them, karaka (Corynocarpus laevigata) and fern root, are mentioned in the historical records (Shand 1911; Skinner and Baucke 1928) as being regularly gathered. Archaeological evidence of both was found in the Durham sites but none of the technological evidence found could be directly related to their collection.

In summary, this was a stable economy based on the year-round presence of fur seals. It focused on low technology hunting and gathering of coastal, marine-based sources. High human population density was sustained within a small home range owing to the exceptionally high levels of primary and other marine production which occur around these islands. This productivity was unaffected by the actions of man.

This economic strategy may have operated within an egalitarian social structure of the sort associated by Sahlins (1958) with Polynesian atolls. The characteristics of the egalitarian society in Sahlins' terms relate to lack of differentiation in status levels. There are only two levels present in typical atoll societies. There are only a few members in the upper level and their power is limited. For instance, violations of resource rights are punished by supernatural forces not the arbitrary power of the chief, and access to resources is controlled by kin group heads not external chiefly authority. Everyone participates in subsistence tasks and division of labour tends to occur on the basis of age and sex rather than being determined by rank. Competition within and between social groups is minimal.

Change towards the egalitarian social structure from the time of initial settlement of the Chathams is suggested by some archaeological and historical evidence. This indicates that marked differentiation by rank was simply not present in the later part of the sequence. For instance, although rich Archaic grave goods were found with burials at Owenga, later burials characteristically lack grave goods (Skinner 1923; Houghton 1976). The distribution of grave goods is taken to be an index of differing social status (Brown 1971). Further, the considerable variety of postures in which corpses, particularly those of adult males, were interred, reflected acquired personal skills in hunting or fishing rather than inherited status (Skinner 1923).

There is no evidence for tattooing among the Moriori, although this is a widespread and ancient criteria of rank in Polynesia. There is a general - 84 lack of the elaborate or highly differentiated in Moriori material culture and art. Headdresses and other apparel, including albatross feathers, the more lavish club forms, the very limited house carvings, and the tree carvings and etchings in limestone are the most elaborated forms. The feather apparel reflects an importance placed on albatross slaughter and the birds themselves by the Moriori. Robertson (C.J.R., personal communication 1979) suggests that one common motif in the rock art is a stylised representation of the albatross head and beak. However, the evidence of the decorative use made of feathers is very limited by comparison with, for instance, evidence from northern New Zealand or Hawaii. Lavish club forms considered here are those included in Skinner's (1923) Group VI. They evidently belong to the late phase of Moriori prehistory. There is considerable uniformity of style within the group. Only one basic form is involved. Supplementary motifs such as brow ridges or anthropomorphic forms may be added but such elaboration is uncommon (see Skinner 1923). The house from which Travers took the only known examples of Moriori wood carvings was small and the carved planks evidently only covered a portion of the front of the structure (Richards nd.). There are simply no historical records of elaborate carving by the Moriori of the sort which is so powerfully rendered in New Zealand. The etchings in limestone and tree carvings both have a limited repertoire of design motifs. Variation is present in both forms but it follows the principal motifs closely. Simmons (1965) has published a preliminary stylistic analysis of the dendroglyphs at Taia on Chatham Island. Parks' (1976) comprehensive photographic record of the rock art should allow analysis of the carvings. However, the overriding impression one gets is of lack of embellishment or more simply of differentiation in all aspects of Moriori material culture and art.

The importance of supernatural sanctions to the Moriori, in the absence of a chieftain structure charged with arbitrary power to settle disputes, is apparent in the unpublished Deighton (MS. 1882) compendium of Moriori karakia. These refer to supernatural regulation of hunting, fishing, and gathering activity. Careless or ruthless behaviour might be punished by interruption of supply. No mention is made of social sanctions initiated by any arbitrary authority.

Perhaps the most remarkable piece of evidence for the egalitarian structure of Moriori culture is the evident lack of warfare. The Moriori declared themselves to have been a peaceful people who did not resort to violence in pre-European times (Grey MS. nd.). Lethal combat was prohibited (Mair 1904); however, fighting of a form which occurs within lineages and clans (Dalton 1977) was practised (Deighton MS. 1882; Mair 1904; Shand 1911). This sets the Moriori apart from almost all other - 85 Polynesians, except possibly those in the environmentally comparable southern half of the South Island of New Zealand, and, of course, the atolls as Sahlins suggests. They claimed that warfare was forbidden by an ancestor called Nunuku (Shand 1911). However, a more acceptable explanation may be seen in the nature of inter-tribal relations in the Chathams. These were formed through the distinctive “selective factors” (Sahlins 1958) which operated in the Chathams.

The islands were divided into a number of tribal areas. Seven of these are known from historical sources (Richards 1962, 1972; Simmons 1962; Walters 1977; and Figure 6). Pitt Island appears to have been a separate tribal area. In all but two of these areas a coastal hunting life-style was followed, which involved permanent settlement in sizeable coastal villages and supplementary movements of small parties to resource zones at which specific food resources were hunted or gathered either seasonally or at irregular intervals. Settlement in the other two main areas appears to have centred on lakeside village sites, the exploitation of forest, wetland and estuarine resources and some trade or exchange for coastal or offshore resources (Sutton nd.).

Each of these areas was occupied by groups which shared kinship relations through common descent or intermarriage (Skinner 1923; Grey MS. nd.). It may be argued on the basis of data presented by Richards (1972) that they were similar in size, equal in their genealogical relationship to major ancestors, and that they were able to exist relatively independently of one another, at least in terms of subsistence needs, because of the rich marine resources which they exploited. Earle (1978: 141) has recently argued that development of chiefdoms on Polynesian high islands resulted from a positive feedback process based on the “seemingly limitless potential for intensification” such as occurs with irrigated agriculture. No such potential existed in the Chathams. The abundance of the marine-based food resources upon which the Moriori depended was determined by climatic and biogeographical factors beyond the control of man. Therefore, attempts to increase the productive capacity of the economic system through various forms of capital investment by a central hierarchy had no place. The absence of expansionistic warfare and of significant craft specialisation, which would have resulted in highly elaborate personal adornments, may be explained on these grounds (see Earle 1978: 173-96).

Sahlins (1958: 218) posited that the egalitarian social structure characteristic of Polynesian atolls arose in response to the following selective factors: “low productivity, small and sporadic surpluses, frequent famines, high population densities in small areas, and certain peculiarities of resource distribution.” The last leads to the typical adap-

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Moriori Tribal Areas (a. after Simmons, 1962; b. Richards, 1972).
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tation to atoll environments, as Sahlins (1958: 218-46) saw it in an interlocked series of local social groups formed with each group exploiting a specific resource or resource area.

The Chathams evidence suggests that the egalitarian social structure may also have arisen in response to a very different set of factors, the principal of these being high and relatively constant productivity based on external factors with no appreciable potential for intensification, by comparison, for instance, with Maori kumara horticulture in northern New Zealand.

The Protohistoric

The fate of the Moriori population following the discovery of the Chathams by Broughton in 1791 was devastating. Suggested causes of the decline have been:

  • 1. Disease: influenza and measles were major killers (see Richards 1972).
  • 2. Extinction of basic resources. The seals were almost extinct locally by 1840 (Dieffenbach 1841).
  • 3. Killings which accompanied Maori arrival in 1835. 226 Moriori people were killed by the Ngati-Awa at this time (Simmons 1964) to establish ownership of the land.
  • 4. “Death due to exhaustion” (Grey MS. nd.) of no known or diagnosable cause as well as introduced diseases is well documented (Grey MS. nd.; Richards 1962). The phenomenon is known from other societies which have suffered profound cultural dislocation. The early date at which this collapse occurred suggests that so-called historical or ethnographic records of the Moriori are liable to be inaccurate, particularly when dealing with population level and settlement patterns.

This article reports a reconstructed culture history of the Chatham Islands. The date of initial settlement is most likely to have been in the interval A.D. 1000-1200. The geographical origin of the first settlers is thought to be either southern New Zealand or the east coast of the North Island. Of these two possibilities the southern origin is more likely, as Skinner (1923) suggested in his classic study. Rapid and successful cultural adaptation followed initial settlement. This involved the development of a stable coastal hunting economy which supported high population densities within very limited home ranges. The development of an egalitarian social structure is suggested and related to the lack of potential for intensification in basic resources upon which Moriori culture was based. Functional rather than solely historical factors are - 88 used to explain the nature of Classic Moriori material culture.

The dramatic events of the protohistoric period have been reviewed briefly; the Moriori people and their culture virtually disappeared with the arrival of other people to their islands. Their way of life can only be tentatively reconstructed from its archaeological remains and a few historical documents. It seems that the very nature of the culture itself made certain its death. Having eschewed warfare, the Moriori could not counter the intrusions of the Ngati-Awa in 1835; confronted with European ideas which transgressed their tapu system, they could not cope and perhaps might be said to have “died of exhaustion”; lacking a centralised political structure, they could put up no unified resistance. The adaptation which the Moriori had made to their isolated island environment seems to have made them vulnerable when that environment was entered by others.


The author wishes to thank Professor Roger Green for his contribution to the development of this paper, D.R. Simmons for help with the Deighton manuscript, and Professor Bruce Biggs for his work on Grey NZMMS 144, and students and staff of the University of Otago for their generous support during the Chathams Project.

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1   The author has searched the location on three occasions and failed to find any trace of the structure. The two rows of “non-local sandstone [uprights] 50' apart” of which the northernmost were “2' 6’’ high and 8’’ square” (Simmons 1964:67) should have been conspicuous. The slope is, however, strewn with naturally formed blocks of red tuff. Simmons (personal communication 1976) removed one of the uprights to the Otago Museum. It is made of a red tuff and the light markings on its surface are held to be natural and not eroded petroglyphs. Emory (1970: 85) and Bellwood (1970: 101, 1978: 416) have used the Chathams marae in assessing Polynesian culture history.