Maori Canoe found in New Zealand Beach

Canoe being excavated at Muriwai Beach, 2010. Source:

From the Northwest Coast (of New Zealand) comes inspiring news for Northwest Coast (of North America) archaeologists.

I don’t know how many times I’ve told students that I would never really expect to find a canoe in an archaeological site and that the evidence for watercraft and marine fluency – still a contentious issue for the early Northwest Coast – will likely be resolved through interpretation of marine fauna from archaeological and from finding sites on remote islands.  While in my view Kilgii Gwaay settles this question for the early period on the Northwest Coast,  I suspect nothing short of a 10,000 year old dugout canoe will satisfy some people as to whether the first inhabitants around here could catch a fish.

So it came as a surprise to read that a nearly-complete, seven-metre long Maori wooden waka tikai, or river  canoe, has been recently found in Muriwai Beach (map) on the Northwest Coast of New Zealand (video clip).  The canoe may take several years to properly conserve, and is currently undated.  While the canoe presumably is less than a thousand years old (the accepted time frame for the  arrival of Maori in New Zealand), the fact that it survived at all, buried in the sands of what appears to be a fairly exposed beach, leads me to think we need to keep our eyes open more for this kind of find on the Northwest Coast.  This story claims that it was seen washing up in the 1920s, but still – once something like this survives the process of burial then it might survive for a very long time indeed protected deep in dark, wet beach or dune deposits.  Memo to self: don’t be so pessimistic!

Maori waka being raised. Source:

17 responses to “Maori Canoe found in New Zealand Beach

  1. Cool stuff. You might also like this (or already know it): The ‘boot van Pesse’ (~8500 years old) was found in peaty soil in the Netherlands.
    These are not the best sites and in Dutch, but still:


  2. Closer to home there is this one, which is being “conserved” in a very traditional way.


  3. Keep our eyes open? You’d have to be pretty blind to miss a canoe in an arch site wouldn’t you? All kidding aside though that’s pretty cool.


  4. marcel — thanks for that link! 8500, and the canoe looks in great shape.

    APM — does the article imply that it was a partially finished canoe that Steven Point found on the beach, that is, an ancient one but still carveable (as you know, there are 100-year plus aboriginal logging features (say, red cedar plank-stripped logs) which have recently seen shake-bolt cutters come and salvage wood from the. So cedar does have that potential.

    M Berkey – I know you are kidding but seriously, if someone doesn’t think it is a possibility there *might* be a canoe found then it might not be found. Even if it was in a site, within a 1mX1m hole it might get treated as a chunk of wood to be cut through, if it was a fragile, eroded section! But as was the Maori case, the canoe might be the site, so we do need to keep our eyes peeled for that unusual curve of a hull in places where there is long term preservation of wood: among the driftwood, in sand dunes, the waterlogged wood in a creek bed, or, dare I say, in a drawn-down reservoir? 😉

    Like I also say a lot, “archaeologists find what they are looking for – and that’s not a good thing”. Next time I see a funny-shaped log I am going to check it out, just in case.


  5. Here is another link, perhaps with more information:

    It implies to me that it is a log with at perhaps 800 years of growth in it, not that it is a log that someone started carver 800 years ago. It was partially shaped into a canoe when found. The age and who was shaping it are not clear – it could be a recent project of anybody trying their hand at making a drift log into a canoe. Or it could be an incomplete aboriginal canoe that has somehow got into the ocean. Either way, it is going to become a canoe at the hands of some remarkable people.


  6. Thanks APM, I see there is a video on that link as well showing the canoe from multiple angles.


  7. So, to return the thread back from that little hi-jack. I have seen accounts of canoes found in rivers and lakes in the interior of BC, though not by archaeologists. I think also there was one a decade or two ago that came out of the Red River near Winnipeg. A fish trap on the central coast had a paddle caught in it. None of these things are very old I don’t think. I do recall also a friend telling me about a kayak seat from a wet site on coastal Alaska which might be quite a bit older. And of course, there are dozens of canoes, mostly unfinished for some reason or another, in the forests of BC. There must have been hundreds of thousands of canoes made during the Holocene on the NWC, so it is entirely reasonable to expect them to show up in archaeological contexts going back as long as dug out canoes have been made.

    I understand M Berkey’s point of view, but my own experience is that if you don’t tune your eyes when doing fieldwork, then you walk right over stuff, or even tip it out of the screen into the backdirt pile. The same principle applies to canoe-sized objects – perhaps even more so since in the NWC we are mostly tuned into looking for small things in buried contexts.

    What a nightmare qmackie paints of cutting through a canoe and not even noticing, at least not till you open up a bigger unit and find a canoe with a neat and tidy 1m hole cut in it. Ouch!


  8. Yeah ouch — and that would be just another day in the field for me. Have a nap, miss a canoe.

    Following on APM, I’ll just link back to a couple of recent posts on partially finished canoes in the woods; canoe manufacture; and parts of a Makah canoe, for those coming in late…..


  9. My understanding is that ‘logboats’ are quite regularly found in European rivers during dredging and other mud-moving operations. Barbara Purdy gave a paper at the WARP conference in Olympia entitled something like “400 canoes on the shore” that described the huge number of waterlogged canoes found along the shore of a Florida lake during a drought. I think its rather odd that noone has found an ancient one on the NWC yet (I think they had some reworked parts at Ozette). Someone salvaged a dugout that was found in one of the southern BC streams in the 1970s. I believe it was filled with rocks and was probably intentionally swamped/sunk to keep it from splitting. I can’t remember who that was or how old is was determined to be. There were some very old planked canoe parts found on the Channel Islands off California. I’ve seen a dozen or two partly-made canoes in the bush. I completely agree with Al’s take on having to be aware. Archaeologists seem to be not very lucky in finding unexpected things; for instance, it took pothunters to find the wet site at Glenrose that dozens of archaeologists had been to. Kitty certainly found the same thing in her examination of field notes – dozens of wet sites had been encountered in the Fraser Valley by archaeologists but not recognized. We looked for the remains of the ‘monster canoe’ at the Flats at Ditidaht – it was about 70 feet long and 8 ft beam, and was abandoned after one trip to Victoria as it was so hard to manage. We knew roughly where it was, but couldn’t find it, or parts of it. It probably went for a mix of shake bolts and firewood – although a lighthouse keeper was rumoured to have the bow section in his house at Carmanah in the mid 20th century.


  10. Hi Morley,

    That reminds me of Phelps Lake in North Carolina where a couple of dozen old canoes have been found:

    “There are more than 5,000 reported shipwrecks in North Carolina waters, the oldest of which include 30 log canoes found in Lake Phelps in 1985. Twenty-three canoes were documented by scientists, 19 were radiocarbon dated with one being almost 4,400 years old, four were removed and treated with preservatives for future study, and two were placed on exhibit at Pettigrew State Park.” Link includes small pic:

    lousy picture:

    There’s a full report on some of the work here, including c-14 dates and stuff but not many actual pictures of the canoes — lots of ethnohistoric illustrations:


  11. It blows my mind that there hasn’t been a single canoe found in an archaeological context in the Pacific Northwest. For something that was so ubiquitous and culturally defining, you would really expect for them to be present at least to some extent.

    Obviously ethnographic and historical evidence is strong enough to give us a perspective on the matter, but it really outlines the problems that archaeologists face in trying to reconstruct ancient lifeways using archaeological remains when you have something as important as a canoe completely absent. Especially the canoe is becoming a topic of interest when it comes to the peopling of the Americas as a whole!

    For that matter, in Texas we have at least one canoe dredged up from the Brazos river
    found at the bottom of the page in a museum.
    Yet canoes in a riverine environment are not really seen as that special, as there is very little ethnographic evidence of their use here.

    Florida native peoples would be an interesting read for anyone interested in the Pacific Northwest groups, a resident professor at my university is obesessed with the Calusa, who, oddly enough were a chiefdom who controlled almost all of Southern Florida at contact, and were entirely reliant on massive quantities of fish for food, as they had no agriculture or land suitable for it. Needless to say the Canoe was a huge part of it’s cultural set.

    The Pacific Northwest is extremely lucky to have such exceptional ethnographic sources such as Boaz and a thriving native culture to this day.

    By the way, love your site, been a long time reader.


    • there have been many partially and nearly completed canoes found during forestry survey throughout the coast, the fact they are often ‘above ground’ does not reduce their archaeological context


      • Thanks for the clarification, I have definitely heard of these finds. I guess instead of “archaeological context” I should use the term “in an archaeological excavation”. I would imagine that any surface finds of unfinished canoes would probably be from the historic or early pre-contact period? In particular, have there been any finds that can be attributed to the earlier phases of Northwest Coast history to which archaeological data is needed to reconstruct their cultural patterns, since ethnographic info is not available?


  12. There has been at least one canoe excavated from an archaeological context in the Northwest Coast. I am not sure if this material is ‘public’ yet. Hartley Odwak of Sources (CRM firm) or one of his folks could speak to it if appropriate.


  13. Here’s another find from New Zealand: a 600 year old canoe emerged from a dune after a storm.


  14. Yeah well its a bit hard to assimilate the whole 1000 year history thing in this NZ , they the government screwed up in 1840 with not outlining clearly with the maori and europeans agreement on the treaty of waitangi, and because of it recently in the last 20 or so years the nz government has given back 2.2 billion dollars of land to the maori .

    Likewise the controversial time line for maori being the so called first inhabitants , was the reason the nz government gave the land back, but with more research and proof and evidence, that there were definitely prehistoric peoples in this country for thousands of years , the nz government will realise ultimately they screwed up once again !


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