Wairau Bar DNA testing hopes to link past with present

Wairau Bar DNA testing hopes to link past with present

DNA from New Zealand's oldest human remains is being tested and compared with that of local iwi to discover how Māori genetics have changed over time.

The ground-breaking research will compare the 800-year-old kōiwi tangata from Wairau Bar (Te Pokohiwi o Kupe) in Marlborough, with DNA from local iwi Rangitāne.

Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith from Otago University is hoping for exciting results.

"Have we lost particular lineages due to the introduction, for example, of European diseases? Do we see the genetic markers that we found in modern Māori and Pacific people that suggest they have a genetic predisposition to particular diseases like gout and type 2 diabetes?"

"It's a pretty exciting new project, really using the cutting-edge technology that's constantly developing in the ancient DNA work.

"The project that we have is to focus on the full genetic makeup, get as much information as we can from these kōiwi tangata, to really try to understand what was the genetic makeup and the genetic diversity of the founding population," she says.

Otago University archaeology student and Rangitāne member Shannara Thwaites has already had her DNA tested as part of the project and was stunned by the results.

"While I was down there I got my DNA tested and found that I was a direct descendant of burial 18 which, for me, just solidified my love of this place. I grew up here and we always knew that we were descended from these people and now we have the science to back that up."

Rangitāne development manager Richard Bradley says it's an incredible opportunity for the iwi.

"The DNA work that Otago has been doing with our people allows us to say with some degree of certainty 'I am the descendant of the first people that settled this land, and my people have been here for the past 800 years surviving, breeding and harvesting the land'. And I hope as a result of knowing that, in 800 years' time my descendants will still be walking the land."

Wairau Bar is the earliest known site of human settlement in New Zealand. It has been described as New Zealand's Shangri-La.

Wairau Bar DNA testing hopes to link past with present


The site was discovered by schoolboy Jim Eyles in 1939, with more artefacts found in 1942.

Early investigations unearthed a burial site with thousands of artefacts and dozens of human skeletons.

They were all found in shallow graves with their heads pointing to the east and their feet to the west -- a practice common in eastern Polynesia.

Radiocarbon dating found the remains dated from 1280 to 1300.

Rangitāne reached an agreement with Canterbury Museum in 2009 to repatriate their tūpuna. Part of the deal was to allow researchers to further study the remains and do more work on the Wairau Bar site.

In 2012, Prof Matisoo-Smith and Dr Michael Knapp, also from Otago University, released the results from the DNA testing on the human remains.

It found that the Wairau Bay settlers were from East Polynesia and had a diet based on soft, starchy food.