At about midday on 23 October 2004, young Wairarapa local Sam Tobin rounded up his dogs, Gomez and Bertie, and took a wander down to the nearby Ruamahanga River. Having run high for days, the river had at last fallen and he was eager to see what changes the recent spring floods had wrought. The family farm at Pukio, 15 km southeast of Featherston, bordered the Ruamahanga and a purpose-built four-metre-high flood bank set back 30 or 40 paces from the water testified to its flood-prone nature. Sixteen-year-old Tobin had known the tree-fringed river to keep to its bed in only one year out of the 11 he had lived on the farm, its shoals and sandy margins endlessly dredged and reworked by the big-muscled seasonal flood.
Stepping out onto a broad shoulder of river sand, studded with stone chip, he noticed what he took to be the upper surface of a whitish rock lit by the noonday sun. Getting closer he saw that it was bone. Such a thing was not uncommon hereabouts—he had often come across fragments, and even complete skulls, of cows and sheep. But as he scraped aside the stones and prised the object free, he realised with a shock that he held in his hands a human skull, discoloured with age, and bleached above and behind the right eye socket where it had lain exposed. There were several holes, one of them in the right temple, perhaps suggesting a violent death.
Tobin replaced the skull and hurried home to tell his mother what the Ruamahanga had delivered to their doorstep. It would prove to be a spectacular find; setting in motion an investigation that would drag on for years and draw in some of the country’s most respected specialists, stirring heated controversy across the country and making headlines on the other side of the world. The debate that ensued challenged our most firmly held assertions of human settlement in New Zealand.
The police were called, but despite a thorough search they could find nothing that might shed light on the identity of the skull, or on the circumstances of its sudden appearance on a secluded bank of the Ruamahanga.
The skull was taken north to be examined by forensic pathologists Dr Rex Ferris and Dr Tim Koelmeyer at Auckland Hospital. Despite being hampered by its damaged and incomplete condition—the jawbone and lower left portion of the cranium were missing—Ferris and Koelmeyer determined that the skull was that of an adult female. Furthermore, most probably of Caucasian origin and that the deterioration of the bone placed the time of death “beyond living memory”. They conjectured that the holes in the skull, each the size of a 10 cent piece, might represent old injuries, and that one of the perforations looked to have been caused by “ancient buckshot”.
Wellington-based forensic anthro-pologist Dr Robin Watt also examined the skull. He concurred with his northern colleagues, stating in his report that it was “probably that of a female, aged about 40-45 years, and probably of European origin”.
The experts agreed, and believing that it could be the remains of an old farm burial, Dr Watt recommended radio carbon dating to make sure it wasn’t a recent death.A sample of bone from the upper part of the skull was duly sent to the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) in Lower Hutt, and a little over three weeks later the result from GNS’s Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory came back. The news was a bombshell.
Cutting through the bewildering complexity of the scientific analysis was a single line, under the heading “Radiocarbon Calibration Report”, which announced an electrifying conclusion. It read: “Conventional radiocarbon age 296 ± 35 years BP”.