(Spoilers: Yes. Yes, they were. Unequivocally, yes.)
In this time of resurgent racism and alternative facts, I suppose we should have expected to see yet another version of the Māori Were Not Here First myth bob up to the surface. And so it has. First, a couple of months ago, one Jaylene Cook posed nude for photos high up Mt Taranaki, which is sacred to the local Māori people, and so sparked a comment-war on Instagram. Im not going to pass judgement on the photoshoot I havent seen the photos and dont know how sexual or otherwise disrespectful they were. I mention it because, during the comment-war, Cook stated that Maori are not indigenous you ignorant t... (redaction by Stuff).
Not long after that, some guy called Noel Hilliam dug up some Māori skulls and reportedly sent them to an Edinburgh University pathologist, who told him they were three thousand years old and Welsh. Whether he told the pathologist where they came from is a critical, and unanswered, question. See, if I were a pathologist and somebody sent me a skull, Id assume theyd found it somewhere near my place of work and contacted me because I was local, and Id start my search for matching features in nearby collections. To determine the age, you might first think of carbon-dating, but bones can easily be contaminated with ancient carbon and no archaeologist trusts an uncorroborated carbon-date anyway. Id most likely look at the teeth, get some idea of what the person ate, and match it to a place and period when people seemed to be eating a similar diet to a standard of close as were going to get, probably. So even if the nameless pathologist was an actual qualified pathologist (Edinburgh University denies having had any such contact), Hilliams ignorance of scientific procedure would pretty much guarantee a worthless result.
But, being so demonstrably ignorant of scientific procedure, Hilliam of course drew sweeping conclusions about New Zealands prehistory from this one piece of data. Or rather, he had already drawn those conclusions and desecrated a Māori burial site merely to confirm them. He went public with a reconstruction of one of the skulls:
There is of course no such thing as a distinctive Welsh skull, but there are some characteristic features you can use, if you come across a skeleton in the South Pacific, to tell whether it belonged to an Islander or an early European visitor. In this case, I have to say those are an awfully wide, rounded jaw-line and robust cheek-bones for a European woman; they would be entirely unremarkable in a Polynesian face. The hair, skin tone, nose profile and thin lips are all guesses on the part of the sketch artist. I gather Hilliam claims his expert told him this person had blond hair, which means that either he or the expert are talking nonsense. You cant tell hair colour from a skull.
Hilliam didnt get his notion of white pre-Māori New Zealanders from the facts, but he didnt get it out of the blue either. These alternative prehistory ideas have been going around since at least the 1990s in certain sectors of the Pākehā (white New Zealander) population. No surprise, theyre closely correlated with racist politics. Hypothetically, it should be possible to believe that someone else settled New Zealand before the Māori did and still support Māori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, since nothing in the Treaty is predicated on Māori being indigenous. But no-one actually seems to take that position. Conversely, people who publicly maintain that Māori are unfairly privileged by the Treaty disturbingly often turn out, in unguarded conversation, to also believe that Māori are a bunch of primitive savages who couldnt possibly have navigated the oceans by themselves.