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

Reviews of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards finalists

Ockham_Book_Awards_lo#26E84 (2)The finalists in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards have now been announced, giving readers 16 fine books to take a second look at, and consider among the best New Zealand books ever produced. The judges had an unenviable task, with 18 months worth of submissions considered, and of course they haven’t chosen everybody’s favourite books (wherefore no The Chimes?) , but it is a pretty fine list nonetheless.

Click the title you are interested in below to read a review, either on our blog, or if we haven’t yet had it reviewed, in another extremely reputable place.

Acorn Foundation Literary Award (Fiction) 


Image from Unity Books Wellington @unitybookswgtn

The Back of His Head, by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press)
Chappy, by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House)
Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing)
The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry (Victoria University Press)

How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press)
The Night We Ate the Baby, by Tim Upperton (Haunui Press)
Song of the Ghost in the Machine, by Roger Horrocks (Victoria University Press)
The Conch Trumpet, by David Eggleton (Otago University Press)

General Non-Fiction


Image from Unity Books Wellington @unitybookswgtn

Maurice Gee: Life and Work, by Rachel Barrowman (Victoria University Press)
The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One Hundred Ways to Read a City, by Fiona Farrell (Penguin Random House)
Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood, by Witi Ihimaera (Penguin Random House)
Lost and Gone Away, by Lynn Jenner (Auckland University Press)

Illustrated Non-Fiction
Te Ara Puoro: A Journey into the World of Māori Music, by Richard Nunns (Potton and Burton)
New Zealand Photography Collected, by Athol McCredie (Te Papa Press)
Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History, by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney, Aroha Harris (Bridget Williams Books)
Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s, by Bronwyn Labrum (Te Papa Press)

Enjoy these wonderful New Zealand books and share them far and wide.

The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are supported by the Ockham Foundation, the Acorn Foundation, Creative New Zealand and Book Tokens Ltd. You can find out who the judges are here. The winners (including of the four Best First Book Awards) will be announced at a ceremony on Tuesday May 10 2016, held as the opening night event of the Auckland Writers Festival.

The awards ceremony is open to the public for the first time. Tickets to the event can be purchased via Ticketmaster once festival bookings open on Friday 18 March. Winners of the Acorn Foundation Literary Award, for fiction, win $50,000. Winners of the other three category awards each receive $10,000, the Māori Language award $10,000, and each of the winners of the three Best First Book awards, $2,500.

by Sarah Forster, Web Editor