Radiocarbon dates, moa bones and extinct shellfish have confirmed a small cove in the Bay of Islands was home to some of the first humans to set foot in New Zealand.

Mangahawea Bay, on Moturua Island, was first excavated in 1981 by team of archaeologists from Auckland. Their finds included a hāngī pit, shells from a limpet which became extinct around the time people first arrived in New Zealand, and a pendant made from what appeared to be a tropical shell.

If that was the case, the pendant must have travelled across the Pacific with the ancestors of Māori.

For reasons which were unclear the dig was never written up and the finds ended up in boxes scattered around New Zealand.

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Mangahawea Bay, seen here during the 2017 excavation, could be one of New Zealand's earliest settlements. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Mangahawea Bay, seen here during the 2017 excavation, could be one of New Zealand's earliest settlements. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The discovery of a single tatty notebook from the 1981 dig prompted Department of Conservation historic ranger Andrew Blanshard to round up the artefacts, and, along with Heritage NZ archaeologists and members of local hapū Ngāti Kuta and Patukeha, return to Mangahawea Bay to finish the job.

In January 2017, the team managed to find, re-examine and document the three locations excavated 36 years earlier.

Detailed analysis since then had confirmed Mangahawea Bay dated back to the beginnings of Polynesian settlement, Heritage NZ archaeologist James Robinson said.

Evidence included radiocarbon dates around 1300AD from the hāngī pit and the presence of moa bones and extinct limpets.

Expert study of the pendant, however, suggested it was originally a pā kahawai fishing lure made from pāua and later turned into a pendant.

The combination of Polynesian design with New Zealand material showed its makers were adapting to a new environment. Research into the pendant was ongoing, Robinson said.

This shell pendant, made to a Polynesian design from a New Zealand shell, is an example of the first Māori adapting to a new environment. Photo / file
This shell pendant, made to a Polynesian design from a New Zealand shell, is an example of the first Māori adapting to a new environment. Photo / file

Now that the age of the settlement had been confirmed, the second stage of the excavation, in January 2019, would seek to understand the village and how it evolved.

Preparations were well under way with the site mapped by a drone-mounted laser known as Lidar. Geomagnetic and ground-penetrating radar surveys, due to be completed by Christmas, would pinpoint underground features such as hāngī pits so archaeologists would know where to dig.

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''We can't dig the whole place up. The beach is 100m long and the site goes back up to 30m. You could be digging for 40 years. The point is to find the good places to look,'' Robinson said.

The project is a partnership between the University of Otago, DoC, Heritage NZ and tangata whenua, led by Matutera Ta Nana Clendon of Ngāti Kuta.

It is one of a number of Northland projects being funded by a $255,127 grant from the Lottery Grants Board's Tuia-Encounters 250 Programme for initiatives connected with Polynesian voyaging and the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook's landfall in New Zealand.