About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.

After Hilliam, what next?

Has my professional pride been wounded, after no one got in contact with me about the whole Noel Hilliam 'Welsh/Mediterranean skulls' fiasco? A little; I did spend far too much time of my life devoted to reviewing the book Hilliam had a hand in, after all; surely some reward should be coming my way… But I jest. Rather, I'm… pleased is not the right word… fascinated that there may well be repercussions to Hilliam's activities.

Long story short: Noel Hilliam believes there were Europeans in Aotearoa well before the Māori. He claims to have provided a University of Edinburgh forensic pathologist (who is now dead) with two supposedly pre-Māori skulls, and the pathologist concluded they were of Welsh and Mediterranean origin. Now Hilliam is being investigated for removing remains from a burial site, which might cost him between NZD$60000 and $300000.

Let's leave to one side the very questionable ability for any pathologist to identify the country of origin of remains based solely on their skulls. We should be asking whether the skulls ever existed? After all, the forensic pathologist in question is conveniently dead, no one at the University of Edinburgh has any idea of who they could have been, and it's awfully hard to ship human remains overseas. So, just how much of the story Hilliam told the Northland Advocate is true? Did Hilliam just use identikit software to generate two likenesses, just in order to claim he had 'evidence' to press his point that we need a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the 'real' history of Aotearoa? Given his propensity in the past to make outrageous claims about his alleged discoveries, I think it's possible the entire story is a sham.1

Hilliam, however, is not the only person of interest here, though. If we're concerned about potential archaeological sites being disturbed (and/or associated claims of pseudo-history), then maybe a little attention should be paid into the people behind this blog. As this page attests, the author (and their mates) are seeking to enter a known (and sealed) burial site in order to prove that the remains inside are pre-Māori giants.

Then I found some stories of caves that held many 'tall ones' near Raglan, in a cave and behind a waterfall. There is also another near Port Waikato in a cave near the Tameana and Hineana caves. There is also a cache of skeletons in a cavern near Waikeretu Valley. But this account most read as being in Waikaretu and being discovered by contractors, was actually near Matira Rd, to the south according to the contractor. Apparently, the site was closed immediately upon Maori viewing it and the access hidden. Why? Because what they saw within that cavern were not Maori, they were much older and much taller – the Raparoa. A moratorium was then slapped upon this site as well. Why not investigate and produce a full, detailed, professional archaeological assessment? Is it because Maori fear the proof that others were already here…the true Tangata Whenua…would affect their treaty claims? It won’t…but maybe it should!

Some (well, most) of their stated reasoning for thinking there is an active conspiracy to cover up the existence of a pre-Māori people in Aotearoa is suspicious. For example, one reason why they are sure there is something interesting about these particular burial sites is that they were discovered, surveyed, and then sealed.

Most people don't like people messing about with the remains of their ancestors; there are, for example, a lot of social conventions around graveyards, one of which is enshrined in law: you don't go around digging up people's remains without permission, even if you think it might solve a murder, prove that someone is your ancestor, or to discover if they are who they said they were. So, the fact the cave—said to be a burial site—was sealed after discovery and surveying does not suggest a cover-up, or that whatever is inside is somehow mysterious. It suggests the cave is what the cave is said to be, a burial site. Yes, it's possible it contains something mysterious, but that implicitly requires us to make a quite extraordinary assumption, the existence of a conspiracy to hide a pre-Māori civilisation in Aotearoa.

As I've argued repeatedly, the problem with this kind of pseudo-history is the vast claim of conspiracy which comes with it. Archaeology is a very international affair; the archaeology of the Pacific, for example, is undertaken by archaeologists in Aotearoa, Australia, France, Germany and the U.S. (to name but a few nations). The research is published both nationally and internationally, and is subject to review by experts across the world. The idea that some elite group of Māori are working with the New Zealand Government (an institution which periodically swings Left or Right depending on who is in power) is one thing. But the idea that archaeologists from around the world are toeing the line on this cover-up is another. I'm really quite interested in what motivation or inducement my government offers archaeologists at academic institutions on the Pacific West Coast of the U.S. to hide the existence of an ancient European civilisation in Polynesia? Or is the conspiracy global? It is related to the conspiracy to hide the Viking colonisation of North America, or that the Ancient Greeks could sail to the Americas in five days or less?

Now, people like the author of that blog claim there is documentary evidence which shows that Māori believed there were people in Aotearoa before they arrived (a claim I've discussed in the past). The author of the blog makes constant reference to kaumatua (elders) claiming certain human remains are 'Not one of us,' but that's a very ambiguous phrase. That might mean 'Not Māori,' or it might mean 'Not of this iwi.' The latter claim means 'Is Māori, but not one of us locals…' Given the contested nature of certain rohe (areas associated with particular iwi) over time, it's not unreasonable to assume that when kaumatua say 'Not one of us,' they are likely referring to burial grounds associated with prior iwi, rather than making some claim about some pre-Māori culture which has been hushed up.

The old 'Māori all have rocker jaws, and these supposedly Māori remains don't…' claim also comes into play. This is another so-called indisputable piece of evidence I've previously shown is highly disputable. However, one thing I guess I've never noted is that the rocker jaw myth owes itself to the racialism of the late 19th/early 20th Century. Victorian ethnography required that races had to have certain identifiable characteristics, and these were often arrived at by finding a set of similar looking people in a population and then marking them out as being typical or the norm. Modern day anthropology has largely jettisoned the set of necessary conditions of Victorian racial categories; yes, certain peoples might have characteristics which are more common in their category than will be found in other groups, but individuals can vary wildly, and thus you really cannot make a racial determination from one assemblage (or, in this case, one part of an assemblage, a skull).

Now, I suspect a reporter or archaeologist with a modicum of research could probably quite easily locate the sites the author and their mates are attempting to disturb (the author seems to be tunnelling into the sites in question, if blog posts like this are accurate). After all, if we are concerned that Hilliam disturbed an archaeological site, we should be concerned that these people are in the process of doing the same.

As someone who double-majored in Anthropology (Archaeology specifically) and Philosophy as an undergrad, I really don't see there being much good evidence for the claim there existed a pre-Māori, European people in Aotearoa. However, if people are going to pursue that hypothesis for research purposes, then disturbing burial grounds (or grave-robbing, as it's more commonly known) is not on. Hilliam, when defending his actions, claims such laws were prejudicial to his research. That may well be true, but I suspect he wouldn't be too happy if people went around digging up his ancestors' graves. Maybe he, and the authors of 'The First Ones' blog might like to think about that. It's not as if grave-robbing is a necessary condition for archaeological research…2

Let me end with a shout out to Martin Butler, who is still on the case in re North Head and the story of what happened to Boeing One and Two. Martin has been seeking to engage in another dig on North Head, and has been going through the lengthy, messy procedure of gaining appropriate permissions and showing he and his team have the appropriate expertise. This kind of stuff is hard, but you don't go around breaking the law in order to try and prove your point. The protections in place are there both for the safety of the inquirers, as well as to make sure that whatever work is done, it is done in a professional, well-documented manner. After all, you only get to dig up a site once, after all.

  1. I guess if Hilliam claims 'I just made it up', he'll not be prosecuted for disturbing a burial ground. What would be interesting in that eventuality will be how he presents such a retraction to his fellow travellers… I can envision a situation where he privately tells them that he had to lie to the authorities to get off being charged, but those skulls did exist, and were sent to Edinburgh… 
  2. There's something to be written, I think, about the way in which we fetishise physical objects in this kind of research. A skull you can point to as being 'Welsh' has a certain psychological value that a research paper doesn't.