Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Background to Maori experiences of earthquakes



The city of Christchurch, New Zealand, (Otautahi being its Maori name) experienced a series of earthquakes beginning on September 4th, 2010, with 7.1 magnitude quake that resulted in no deaths but significant damage to many buildings. It was a smaller (M 6.3) but shallower and therefore more severe quake on February 22nd, 2011, that was the most damaging, killing 181 people and causing widespread destruction in the CBD as well as significant damage to thousands of residential properties in some areas. Another M 6.3 quake on June 13th led to just one related death but wrought further structural damage but provoked considerable fear and distress to many residents. Between these major quakes, and following the June 13th event, were thousands of aftershocks, several over magnitude 5.0, a ‘seismic event’ in the words of geologists whose esoteric work became very familiar to many concerned citizens.

As settlers of a geologically active country, both Maori and Pakeha (the descendents of European, primarily British, settlers) are reasonably aware of earthquake risk, with a 1931 disaster being the most significant occurrence (though no longer in the living memory of most) that resulted in 256 deaths, many from the resulting fires in the primarily wooden city. A major volcanic eruption (Tarawera) near Taupō occurred about 200 AD, incinerating an area of approximately 20,000 square kilometres (McSaveney, Stewart, and Leonard 2011). New Zealand was not settled by Maori at this time; dating of the event is from the observations around the world.

Rangitoto, located adjacent to New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, this is the youngest and largest of that region’s volcanic cones. Māori living there would have witnessed its formation, as dating methods show the eruption occurred around 1400 AD. Stone tools have been found under ash deposits, and footprints found within the ash.


Remains of lava eruption on Rangitoto. Auckland city in the background

Archaeological evidence has revealed artefacts on and around Mt Taranaki between ash deposits from eruptions that took place around 1450, 1500 and 1655. Local Māori oral history speaks of a settlement destroyed in one eruption.



White Island (Whakaari) is New Zealand’s most active volcano, constantly venting steam and gases, and features in local Maori histories. Sulfur deposits were once mined until a collapsing crater wall killed 11 miners in 1914 (ibid.).



There was a significant eruption of Mt Tarawera around 1314 AD, depositing ash over a wide area. However, Tarawera is better known for its 1886 eruption. The official death toll was 150, although the number was more likely between 108 and 120 people (McSaveney, Stewart, and Leonard 2011). Local Maori communities suffered, and the event is also notable for indicators (in the days before Mt Tarawera erupted there was an increase in hot spring activity) and an omen with Māori and Pākehā tourists reporting a phantom Māori war canoe sailing across Lake Tarawera, and surges in the water.




Hinemihi meeting house at Te Wairoa, after the Mt Tarawera eruption of 10 June 1886. Photograph taken circa 1886 by Edmund Wheeler and Son.


These histories form an important back drop to this research, but they are just the starting point for the range of Maori perspectives (plural). The ‘seismic event’ of geology is leading to seismic changes in many areas, not least among affected Maori whanau, kura (schools), organisations, and businesses. Many businesses have either closed or have lost customers, unemployment increased, schools have reported rolls dropping by up to 20%, domestic violence, gambling, and drinking have all increased, and people are reporting levels of stress and insecurity.


The networks of economic, social, and cultural support form the primary focus of our research. You can keep up with progress on this important research through our 'Conversations at Lincoln' page. 

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Simon Lambert

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