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The making of Maori society: An archaeological analysis of social networks

SMU archaeologist Mark D. McCoy has been awarded a grant to collaborate with other researchers on how New Zealand’s Māori society developed.

SMU archaeologist Mark D. McCoy has been awarded a grant to collaborate with other researchers on how New Zealand’s Māori society developed.

McCoy is working with Thegn Ladefoged, University of Auckland, New Zealand, to reconstruct ancient systems of inter-iwi trade and contact by looking at the physical evidence of everyday life — tracing when and where ancient tools made from obsidian moved throughout New Zealand.

An expert in landscape archaeology and monumental architecture and ideology in the Pacific Islands, McCoy is an associate professor in the SMU Department of Anthropology.

“One of the most exciting things about this project is we have the opportunity to add a new dimension to the rich history of Māori society that we already know from oral histories passed down over about 20 generations, stretching back to the first people to arrive in New Zealand around A.D. 1250,” McCoy said. “Those histories describe the confederation of families and villages into larger tribal identities that have carried on to the modern day.”

By working in collaboration with contemporary Māori, the researchers hope to learn what happened over the years to shape the kind of society that early European visitors encountered when they began to regularly visit New Zealand in the late 1700s, he said.

“I think this is especially relevant to the modern world where it is easy to think of social networks as a by-product of living in a digital age, when in fact social networks have always been part of the human experience and likely tell us a great deal about how we see ourselves and our place in the world,” McCoy said.

The project is funded by The Marsden Fund, which was established by the government of New Zealand in 1994 to fund fundamental research. New Zealand’s equivalent to the U.S. government’s National Science Foundation, The Marsden Fund is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

The new project integrates science, archaeology and local knowledge on a rarely seen scale, making it one of the most unique and exciting Marsden-funded projects in recent years, according to a statement from the Royal Society of New Zealand.

“No culture is socially static. Over several centuries, the Polynesian colonists who settled New Zealand began to create a new type of society. Relatively autonomous village-based groups transformed into larger territorial hapū lineages, which later formed even larger iwi associations,” the statement reads.

Traditionally, information passed down through the generations by word of mouth has provided the best evidence of these complex, dynamic changes in social organization. However, the novel Marsden-funded project will use archaeological evidence to examine how social networks beyond the village changed as Māori society developed.

By combining traditional archaeological techniques, sophisticated Geographical Information System analyses and social network analysis modelling with local iwi input, the team led by McCoy and Ladefoged will gain new insights into how Māori society emerged and flourished in the past.

Proposed experiments will use obsidian hydration dating as a method for determining the age of New Zealand artifacts. This collaborative research will also connect or reconnect Māori with their taonga held in museums and university archaeology collections.

Recently McCoy published findings uncovered as part of a National Geographic expedition to more accurately date the age of Nan Madol, an ancient coral reef capital in the Pacific Ocean with a monumental tomb said to belong to the first chief among the islands. — The Royal Society and SMU

By Margaret Allen

Senior research writer, SMU Public Affairs