Dozens of ancestral remains have been reburied in an emotional ceremony at Puketeraki Marae, Karitane.

Enclosed in specially made boxes, the remains of 63 people - ranging from babies to old people - were laid to rest at the Huirapa pa site yesterday.

Upoko David Ellison said the reinterment ceremony offered a chance to "lay our ancestors to rest".

"They have finally found their resting place and that is important to us as an iwi and as a runanga. It is emotional enough to attend an ordinary funeral, but a funeral for 60 people ... well."


Mr Ellison expressed thanks to the assistance of the Otago Museum, which looked after the remains, University of Otago's Anatomy Department, which did the scientific analysis, and local archaeologist Brian Allingham.

"It is gratifying for all our runanga to receive so much information about our tipuna."

The boxes were welcomed on to the marae at 10am yesterday,before being carried to their final resting place, which had been lined with flax and surrounded with stones.

"They were just ordinary people, but to us they are very sacred," Mr Ellison said.

"They should be happy here."

The bones were believed to be between 250 and 300 years old.

"This is part of putting right the wrongs of colonialism," Victoria University pro vice-chancellor of Maori Professor Piri Sciascia said.

"That was the way it was then. People would pick up bones and study them. But, it always sat uncomfortably with us, because human bones are sacred."


Ngai Tahu entered negotiations with the Anatomy Department 20 years ago for the return of the remains, some of which had lain there since the 1880s.

In 2003 those remains were transferred to the Otago Museum and three years ago Kati Huirapa Runanka ki Puketeraki signed an agreement so the remains could be returned to the Anatomy Department for scientific analysis before reinterment.

University of Otago Anatomy department Assistant Professor Hallie Buckley told the Otago Daily Times a team were able to determine the age, sex, ethnicity, and even diet from examining the remains.

"They were very similar to many polynesian groups around New Zealand, tall, muscular, strong people."

While it was difficult to determine the cause of death, some had lived into old age - around 50 in those days- while the remains of babies were also examined.

The earliest remains had been collected since the 1880s and were initially collected as "specimens", but discoveries over the past few years had come from eroded clay banks.