Know what to do if you find hu­man bones

Cou­ple take text­book re­sponse

The Northland Age - - Local News -

The dis­cov­ery of an­cient hu­man re­mains by a cou­ple walk­ing on Tok­erau Beach re­cently high­lighted the need for knowl­edge about what to do, Her­itage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga North­land re­gional ar­chae­ol­o­gist Dr James Robin­son says.

The cou­ple, who were vis­it­ing from O¯ pua, no­ticed what looked like bones in a sand dune, and were con­cerned that they may have been koiwi tan­gata (hu­man re­mains). Their re­sponse was “ab­so­lutely text­book,” Dr Robin­son says.

“The peo­ple con­tacted us by email and alerted us to the pos­si­bil­ity of koiwi and their where­abouts. We were then able to get in touch with Te Ru¯nanga-a-Iwi o Nga¯ti Kahu, who con­tacted Te Wha¯nau Moana Te Roro­huri kauma¯tua Robert Ur­lich and Kaiti­aki Ranger Nina Ra­haruhi,” he said.

“To­gether we were able to con­firm that it was in­deed koiwi that were be­ing eroded by weather, and then ad­dress the is­sue in a way that was re­spect­ful and fol­lowed cor­rect tikanga.”

The re­mains were care­fully ex­humed by Dr Robin­son, us­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal tech­niques, while Mr Ur­lich pro­vided cul­tural guid­ance. Once it was es­tab­lished that the koiwi were not modern, hapu¯ tikanga took prece­dence. They were sub­se­quently re-in­terred at an urupa on the Karikari Penin­sula.

Mr Ur­lich and Ms Ra­haruhi al­ways knew the dunes were urupa (burial grounds])

Dr Robin­son says peo­ple shouldn’t be sur­prised that koiwi will be found oc­ca­sion­ally, par­tic­u­larly where weather, ero­sion and even earth­works can uncover bones that have lain undis­turbed for cen­turies.

He had ex­humed koiwi on about 10 oc­ca­sions dur­ing the last three years, and said there were some ba­sic steps to fol­low for those who came across what might be hu­man re­mains.

“It’s re­ally help­ful if peo­ple can tell us where the re­mains were found,” he said. “It is use­ful if they are able to take a pic­ture of what they’ve found — us­ing a phone cam­era is ab­so­lutely fine. If peo­ple can also take a photo of the gen­eral en­vi­ron­ment where the bones have been found, that can be very help­ful, be­cause it gives us a broader con­text, and as­sists with iden­ti­fy­ing their ex­act lo­ca­tion, es­pe­cially when there is very lit­tle di­ag­nos­tic ma­te­rial left.

“If bones are found erod­ing out of the ground, the best thing is to leave them alone, or per­haps cover them with sand or soil if that’s prac­ti­cal, then mark the spot so they can be fol­lowed up later. If bones are found ly­ing on the beach, where they might be af­fected by the tide, peo­ple can take them to the grassy area above the high tide zone, cover them with some­thing like a tarp or rug and mark the spot where they have been placed.”

They should then call the po­lice or Her­itage New Zealand, who would then con­tact the lo­cal iwi and hapu¯.

“There are a num­ber of in­di­ca­tors that tell us if bones are older. Th­ese in­clude fac­tors like wear on teeth from eat­ing fern root, the man­ner of burial, in some cases, and ev­i­dence like the dis­tinc­tive ‘rocker jaw’ that is a fea­ture of Ma¯ori bone struc­ture.

“Th­ese and other clues will show whether we’re deal­ing with a his­toric sit­u­a­tion or a po­ten­tial crime scene.

“Her­itage New Zealand has pro­cesses in place that en­sure the hu­man re­mains are man­aged sen­si­tively.

“Their cul­tural ori­gins are not im­por­tant. The key thing is that they are treated with re­spect, and that iwi are in­volved and cor­rect tikanga is fol­lowed as ap­pro­pri­ate.

“As a gen­eral guid­ing prin­ci­ple, I treat koiwi with the same care and re­spect that I would treat my own grand­par­ents.

“If peo­ple fol­low th­ese sim­ple guide­lines, koiwi can be laid to rest with care and re­spect.”

"To­gether we were able to con­firm that it was in­deed koiwi that were be­ing eroded by weather, and then ad­dress the is­sue in a way that was re­spect­ful and fol­lowed cor­rect tikanga."

Dr James Robin­son, ar­chae­ol­o­gist


Kaiti­aki Ranger Nina Ra­haruhi (Nga¯ ti Kahu) and Robert Ur­lich, kauma¯ tua for Haiti­taimaranga­i Marae, at the koiwi site on Tok­erau Beach, just prior to ex­ca­va­tion. The re­mains had been pro­tected with sand af­ter they were found the pre­vi­ous day to pro­tect them from fur­ther ero­sion and other dam­age.

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