Fish and shellfish remains, and bird bones collected from near Foxton more than 30 years ago are yielding important clues about early Maori occupants, their diet and the environment in which they lived.
"The remains go back more than 500 years," says Janet Davidson, an archaeologist at Te Papa, Museum of New Zealand.
Dr Davidson and Foss Leach, the museum's curator of archaeozoology, are analysing the remains as part of the "Bridge and Barrier" research project about Cook Strait, funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.
"Foxton is a very important site because it was undisturbed until it was accidentally discovered by the landowner in 1963," Dr Davidson says. "It was excavated between 1964 and 1971, and all the animal and bird bones and large samples of the shells were kept for later study."
That meant analyses could be done now that weren't possible then. New research questions are being asked today and new methodologies have been developed to answer them.
"Thirty years ago we didn’t even know how to identify fish bones systematically, let alone reconstruct size frequency characteristics of the catch of particular species," Dr Davidson says. "And we can reconstruct the inhabitants' diet and their environment." The site's setting was puzzling. It is more than two kilometres from the sea and from the Manawatu River.”
But the people who lived there brought large quantities of fish and shellfish back to their home. They hunted moa and other birds – even tuatara remains are present in the site.
"The bird bones reflect a forested environment, very different from the farmland of today."
A large proportion of fish caught were snapper. "This is unusual for this region, but supports previous findings from other archaeological sites in the Cook Strait, particularly on Mana Island. These suggested that snapper in the strait area had declined in abundance over time. Sites in Northland had hinted at a decline in snapper, too. Changing temperatures on the sea surface might have been the cause,” Dr Davidson says.
Surprisingly, few toheroa shells had been found at the Foxton site. "The main species in the ancient rubbish dump are tuatua, cockles, and mudsnails."
Dr Davidson says the archaeological results might help scientists to understand natural changes in fish and shellfish stocks, as well as throwing light on human history in the region.