Exploring NZ’s environmental history through maps

I feel slightly embarrassed to admit this (and therefore perhaps shouldn’t), but I have only recently discovered the cartographic and other visual delights which lie between the sturdy covers of the New Zealand Historical Atlas, published in 1997.

Of course, I had seen it referenced many times in scholarship on New Zealand’s environmental history, but (and this is where my less than favourable encounters with high-school geography may be revealed), I had imagined a dusty old book of the traditional style maps that only a dyed-in-the-wool geographer or cartographer would get excited about.

How wrong I was.

At the risk of resorting to cliches, this book is an absolute must-have for anyone interested in New Zealand’s environmental history. Or anyone teaching New Zealand’s cultural, social or environmental history. I can also see why it took a dedicated team of geographers, cartographers, historians, geologists and archaeologists seven years to produce. It is a masterpiece, which lives up to its sub-title “visualising New Zealand”.

Large maps adorn each double-page spread, accompanied by photographs, sketches and graphics, along with explanatory text which is pleasantly free of academic or technical jargon. It could be read and enjoyed by an intelligent 14 year old (which, in my eyes, is a sign of a good book!).

The book is structured into five (roughly chronological) parts: Origins (scientic and traditional Maori explanations of New Zealand’s origins); Te Ao Maori (pre-European Maori history); colony and colonised (1840 – 1890); Dominion (1890 – 1960); and From Progress to Uncertainty (1960s to 1990s). Each double-page plate illustrates a particular topic, many of which directly relate to environmental history, including the discovery and use of stone resources by Maori; distribution of Maori horticulture; development of sheep-farming (pastoralism); the wheat boom on the Canterbury Plains; the rapid clearance of the lower North Island bush; the dairy industry from 1880s to 1930s – and the list goes on.

Photo: Palliser Bay, one important site of Maori horticulture featured in the Historical Atlas. See also: The abandonment of Palliser Bay – a prehistoric case of environmental degradation?

New Zealand Historical Atlas, edited by Malcolm McKinnon, with Barry Bradley and Russell Kirkpatrick (1997, Bateman). See also: Resources page

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