Book Review: The First Migration: Māori Origins 3000BC-AD1450, by Atholl Anderson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_first_migrationIn a traditional account from the Pacific island of Tikopia, we learn how one hundred people from the Nga Faea clan lost a territorial dispute and effectively went into exile: ‘The women and children were in the canoes; many of the men swam alongside . . . . So they went from sight, to be lost forever from the knowledge of men.’

Yet Atholl Anderson brings these people, and other traditions, back into view. In The First Migration: Māori Origins 3000BC-AD1450 Anderson seeks to show that there ‘is a history before history’ by widening the historical lens beyond the gaze of European observation of Māori , to incorporate a much broader timeframe, and the vast expanse of the Pacific.

Moving from the first migration, which began 5000 years ago when people started to move from South China to the Asian archipelago in a series of punctuated movements that would culminate in the arrival of tangata whenua in New Zealand, the book traces a long, incremental history. We learn of ‘genetic contributions, material cultural assemblages and economic commodities and strategies’, and are made privy to a process of ‘becoming’ before the actual ‘coming’.

Atholl outlines the network of elements necessary for this migration to be possible and considers the evidence available for us to access this fluid past: a series of movements before the final push to Aotearoa; winds (Atholl asks what if sailing conditions were different back then?); sailing technology; languages and peoples – who move through the centuries, eventually leaving the volcanic atolls off the Eastern Pacific for the ‘temperate, high islands of New Zealand’.

In this BWB text Anderson considers ‘what we know, and how’ about Māori origins in two parts: the first looks at the scientific responses to these questions; the second weaves in the historical accounts. The array of tools with which we look back, excavate and analyse are examined and critiqued, whether they be DNA, bacteria, pottery and tools, or genetic changes. He provides an account of the traces and varying spread of languages – from the slow-changing, wide-based Malayo-Polynesian marine languages to the Oceanic languages, which ‘may have changed quickly through repeated bottleneck effects’.

Then there are the rich traditional accounts, the details of which correspond across traditions and ‘provide significantly historical accounts of the tangata whenua migrations – of the individuals and groups who came, and the events that shaped their journeys’.

In just over one hundred pages, Anderson not only demonstrates the variety and means available for us to examine the past, but also brings together scientific and historical traditions, giving them equal consideration and presenting an accessible, humanised history.

For this reader, what is most striking – and stirring – ¬ is the concept of the voyage itself – ‘the implication of a large voyaging canoe setting off into the unknown’. There is neither adventure nor romance to be associated with this, rather a last solution for survival – where ancestors were forced on by ‘hunger, boundary disputes, personal feuds and warfare’. This is not only a useful lens through which to view a part of Aotearoa’s far-reaching history, but also to consider the current migrations of refugees. And in looking further back we see that origins have no fixed beginning point – that the past is not a static entity.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

The First Migration: 3000BC -15450AD
by Atholl Anderson
Published by BWB Texts
ISBN  9780947492793

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