Leaving the Tropics: Migrating Polynesian Horticulture South

Event details

PhD Seminar

Date & time

Thursday 06 September 2018


Coombs Extension 1.04


Warren Gumbley


Warren Gumbley

The adaptation of Polynesian culture has been the principal motif in New Zealand archaeology and fundamental to this are the problems relating to the adaptation of the Polynesian horticultural system.

In settling New Zealand/Aotearoa, Polynesians transported themselves over thousands of kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. They brought with them their horticultural tradition as techniques or methods and were able to establish a selection of the wide range of available tropical cultigens. Ultimately, the Polynesian horticultural system, which was developed in the tropics, was transferred to the temperate climate of New Zealand.

We know from the records of early European explorers that systematic agriculture was being successfully practiced in New Zealand in the late 18th Century and therefore that adaptation had been successful. It has also been proposed as a major factor in the development of a cultural landscape dominated by thousands of fortified villages. However, the path and nature of that adaptation remains poorly understood. My research focuses on the horticultural complex of the inland Waikato Basin.

The Waikato horticultural complex, located along 110 km of the Waikato River forms one of the most archaeologically visible and largest horticulture systems in New Zealand. This horticultural system represents an energy-expensive and intensive strategy central to the successful adaptation of Polynesian horticultural practices apparently focused on kūmara (Ipomoea batatas) but also including dryland taro (Colocasia esculenta) cultivation and probably also tropical yam (Dioscorea spp).

In this presentation I intend to review the archaeology of this system with particular emphasis on its principal characteristic, the quarrying, transport and application of massive quantities of sand and gravel to create “made-soils” as part of an intensified swidden horticultural system. The excavation of several well-preserved sites have allowed insights into the techniques applied and the processes followed from forest clearance to garden abandonment.

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