The abandonment of Palliser Bay – a prehistoric case of environmental degradation?

Archaeological evidence shows that Maori occupied the south-east coast of the North Island, including Palliser Bay, by the 14th century. Research in the 1970s by Foss and Helen Leach of Otago University showed that people lived in small settlements at stream and river mouths. The people were both gardeners and hunters and gatherers, reliant on what they could take from the forest, rivers, streams, coastal lagoons and the sea – the main sources of food were likely to have been small birds, fish, seals and kūmara (sweet potato). There is evidence of about 300 people in six separate communities on the eastern side of the Palliser Bay. Yet by the 1600s these settlements had gone.

Subsequent research offers various reasons for their demise – but it appears that a mixture of human-induced and natural environmental catastrophes caused the disappearance of these coastal communities.

Archaeologist Bruce McFadgen suggests that a series of natural disasters exacerbated human-induced environmental degradation and pressure on resources. According to his research, sometime during the late 15th century, a major earthquake caused the coast between Palliser Bay (see map right, or click here for more detailed map) in the south and Flat Point along the eastern coast to uplift by about a metre. This in turn caused the coastal lagoons to drain and consequently a rich source of food resources was lost. The earthquake also caused rock to loosen and fall from hillsides and cliff-faces, which clogged streams and impacting on the freshwater ecology. The seismic activity also caused streams to vary their course and sand dunes to advance inland, burying settlements and making some parts of the coast uninhabitable.

But the effects of this natural disaster were temporary, and in time, people began to re-establish themselves along the coast. However, around one century later, another natural disaster and the effects of cumulative environmental degradation were to make these coastal settlements uninhabitable, and lead to their ultimate abandonment.

During the 16th century or early 17th century, a tsunami struck this part of the coast, flooding coastal settlements, and destroying crops and vegetation. This natural disaster is likely to have exacerbated the environmental degradation already caused by the burning and clearance of coastal forest, which had been occurring for over a century. The destruction of forest vegetation meant fewer birds to catch, and less shelter for gardens from the prevailing winds. Fire also accelerated soil erosion, reducing crop yields, choking streams and smothering shellfish beds. It is thought that by the early 16th century, shellfish such as oysters, mussels, pipi and tuatua had disappeared.The combined effects of these of these natural catastrophes and the cumulative effects of human modification of an environment already delicately in the balance in terms of sustaining a human population led to its ultimate abandonment as a site of permanent settlement. It is estimated that the area was largely devoid of human settlements by 1625, with many moving northwards into the Wairarapa Valley. Tellingly, even today, these coastal areas are only sparsely populated.

Most importantly, this history of the southern Wairarapa coast has a lesson for us in contemporary times also: that human induced degradation of the environment makes us more susceptible to the effects of natural disasters (note for example the role of deforestation in Cyclone Bola and the 2004 floods) – and that in the end, the unsustainable use of our environment always has consequences sooner or later.

Photo top: Palliser Bay from the sky. Photo bottom: These stone rows at Okoropunga, on the south Wairarapa coast (east of Palliser Bay, but comparable in nature), are from a 15th-century Māori settlement. The rows generally run parallel to each other. Some rows are thought to mark boundaries, but it was the rows themselves on which crops were planted – the soil covering the rows tends to be warmer and better for growing plants like gourds (Photo: Bruce McFadgen).

Sources/further reading: Hostile shores: catastrophic events in prehistoric New Zealand and their impact on Maori coastal communities (2007), by Bruce McFadgen; 100 historic places in New Zealand (2002), by Gavin McLean; “Prehistoric Man in Palliser Bay” (1979), Leach, B.F., and Leach, H.M. (editors). National Museum of New Zealand Bulletin 21; Wairarapa Region – Maori settlement on Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand;

2 thoughts on “The abandonment of Palliser Bay – a prehistoric case of environmental degradation?

  1. Very interesting. As a Wairarapa based archaeologist interested in environmental changes brought about by human impact I was interested your take on this coastlines environmental history.

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