The Tuia 250 flotilla has started its visit to the Bay of Islands by paying respects to one of the earliest known sites where Māori settled after their long journey across the Pacific Ocean.

The fleet of three tall ships — including a replica of Cook's vessel the Endeavour — and three waka hourua or double-hulled ocean-going canoes — were welcomed as they arrived in the Bay yesterday morning with a powhiri at Rawhiti Marae, east of Russell.

The tall ships, from left, Endeavour, Spirit of New Zealand and R Tucker Thompson arrive at Mangahawea Bay. Photo / Peter de Graaf
The tall ships, from left, Endeavour, Spirit of New Zealand and R Tucker Thompson arrive at Mangahawea Bay. Photo / Peter de Graaf

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From there they sailed to Mangahawea Bay, on Moturua Island, where the sailors took part in the blessing of a carved pou marking one of New Zealand's most significant archaeological sites.

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The honour of unveiling the carving went to a sailor from the Tahitian waka Fa'afaite, who hails from the very islands where Māori are thought to have begun their migration some seven centuries ago.

Teva Teihotaata, from the Tahitian waka Fa'afaite, unveils a pou signifying the importance of Mangahawea Bay. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Teva Teihotaata, from the Tahitian waka Fa'afaite, unveils a pou signifying the importance of Mangahawea Bay. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Ngāti Kuta kaumatua Matutaera Clendon said archaeologists' findings confirmed what Māori already knew about the significance of Mangahawea Bay.

The bay's long history was reflected in place names which linked it directly to places such as Raiatea in what is now French Polynesia.

As well as signalling the site's importance the pou would bring people together and unify stories about New Zealand's earliest history, Clendon said.

The pou was carved by Hohepa Hemara of Rawhiti and given the name Te Pou Taihere o Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa.

The Tahitian ocean-going canoe Fa'afaite follows the Maori waka hourua Haunui and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti to Mangahawea Bay. Photo / Peter de Graaf
The Tahitian ocean-going canoe Fa'afaite follows the Maori waka hourua Haunui and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti to Mangahawea Bay. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Tuia 250, which commemorates the first onshore encounters between Māori and Europeans 250 years ago, continues today with the pre-dawn delivery of a mauri stone from Raiatea to Waikare Marae, and a 9.30am powhiri at Te Tii Marae in Waitangi.

A large fleet of waka, including the great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua, will welcome the flotilla as it arrives in Tii Bay this morning.

Archaeological digs were carried out at Mangahawea Bay in 1981, 2017 and 2019. Radiocarbon dating of hangi pits and the presence of a species of limpet which became extinct around 700 years ago point to an settlement date around 1300AD.

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Ngati Kuta/Patukeha kaumatua Matu Clendon and Heritage NZ archaeologist James Robinson at work at Mangahawea Bay in 2017. Photo / file
Ngati Kuta/Patukeha kaumatua Matu Clendon and Heritage NZ archaeologist James Robinson at work at Mangahawea Bay in 2017. Photo / file

Other finds include moa bones, a pendant made to a Polynesian design but using New Zealand paua shell, and the remains of what could be a planted taro patch. If verified, it would be the oldest garden so far unearthed in New Zealand.

Heritage New Zealand archaeologist James Robinson said Aotearoa was the last major landmass to be settled by humans or as some liked to put it, ''the last bus stop''. That made the country's history short but hugely significant.

Findings from Mangahawea Bay would help shed light on how early Māori adapted from life on small tropical islands to a large land with a seasonal climate.