Tephras and New Zealand archaeology

Establishing an accurate date for earliest Polynesian settlement in New Zealand is essential for understanding patterns of settlement and associated environmental impacts, and the processes and rates of cultural change in Eastern Polynesia. Tephra deposits from five volcanic centres, together with exotic sea-rafted pumice, provide isochronous constraints on the timing of earliest settlement and human impacts in northern New Zealand. A local basaltic tephra from Rangitoto Island (Auckland) and locally distributed andesitic tephras from Egmont volcano directly date human occupation to c. AD 1400–1450. Distal andesitic tephras (Tufa Trig Formation) from Mt Ruapehu, Tongariro volcanic centre, help constrain the timing of earliest anthropogenic deforestation signals in Hawke's Bay. Sea-rafted Loisels Pumice(s), although of uncertain stratigraphic reliability in places, overlies cultural remains that can be no younger than c. AD 1350 along the east coast, North Island. The regionally extensive rhyolitic Kaharoa Tephra, which erupted from Okataina volcano between c. AD 1300–1390, is the critical “settlement layer” datum for dating prehistory in the North Island: no human artefacts are recorded beneath it and the earliest inferred environmental impacts by humans are dated to c. AD 1280, just prior to its deposition. This maximum date matches the earliest radiocarbon dates derived for both settlement and human impacts from archaeological and natural sites (c. AD 1250), and implies that the onset of deforestation was essentially contemporaneous with initial settlement. The widespread rhyolitic Taupo Tephra, which erupted from Taupo volcano c. AD 200, provides an isochronous benchmark well before earliest settlement. The tephra may coincide approximately with a putative earlier transient contact in New Zealand based on Pacific rat-bone (Rattus exulans) dates. More precise calendrical dates on the tephras—via dendrochronology or ice-core records or other dating methods—would help refine assessment of the timing of earliest settlement, while extending the distributional range of critical tephra layers, through application of crypto-tephra analysis, could lead to a greater understanding of settlement patterns.
Journal Article
Type of thesis
Lowe, D.J., Newnham, R.M., McFadgen, B.G. & Higham, T.F.G. (2000). Tephras and New Zealand Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Science, 27(10), 859-870.
Academic Press
Publisher version