Optical dating of quartz sediments and accelerator mass spectrometry 14C dating of bone gelatin and moa eggshell: A comparison of age estimates for non-archaeological deposits in New Zealand

Richard N. Holdaway, Richard G. Roberts, Nancy R. Beavan-Athfield, Jon M. Olley, Trevor H. Worthy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


A consensus has not been reached on the validity of "old" (pre-Polynesian settlement) 14C ages for Pacific rat bones from New Zealand. As an independent test of their validity, we have applied optical dating techniques to fossiliferous sediments at three non-archaeological sites in the North and South Islands. In this paper, we report the optical ages obtained from quartz grains and compare them with a suite of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) 14C ages obtained from the bone gelatin of Pacific rats (Rattus exulans) and five species of bird (four herbivores and one omnivore). An AMS 14C age is also reported for one sample of moa (Aves: Dinornithformes) eggshell. All dated fossil remains were collected from known stratigraphic positions. Additional chronological control is provided by two known-age volcanic tephras at the Hukanui sites in the North Island. At the South Island site (Earthquakes #1), an infilled burrow provides independent age control, in that fossils inside the burrow should yield younger ages than the sediments and fossils outside the burrow. Bone preservation is uniformly good at all sites, as shown by surface detail, nitrogen content, and C:N ratios. In addition, amino acid profiles are consistent with those of collagen from modern Pacific rats and the laboratory rat collagen standard. Single-aliquot optical dating protocols were employed to avoid age overestimation due to incomplete bleaching of sediments before burial and to permit the identification of any post-depositional disturbance. At the Hukanui sites, 14C ages on bird bone and eggshell agree with the optical ages for the enclosing sediments, and both chronologies are consistent with the accepted ages for the overlying Taupo Ignimbrite (c. 1850 yr BP) and the underlying Waimihia Tephra (c. 3300 yr BP). Two 14C ages from Finsch's duck (Chenonetta finschi) bones excavated from within the Taupo Ignimbrite agree with the accepted age of the ignimbrite. In addition, a gelatin sample from a Pacific rat bone reportedly excavated from beneath the Taupo Ignimbrite has a similar amino acid profile to that of modern collagen. This measure of good bone preservation provides confidence in the 14C age for this sample (1775 ± 93 yr BP), which accords with its position beneath the ignimbrite. At Earthquakes #1, five 14C determinations were made: three on Pacific rat, one on New Zealand pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), and one on South Island kokako (Callaeas cinerea). All five ages are consistent with the stratigraphic locations of the fossils, and with the optical ages for the enclosing sediments. We conclude that the early arrival of rats in New Zealand is supported by the array of chronological evidence presented here: the concordance of 14C and optical ages at each of the sites; the agreement between 14C ages on different materials and for a range of species; and the consistency of the 14C and optical ages with stratigraphic and other chronological markers. The Pacific rat was present in both the North and South Islands of New Zealand at least 800 years before permanent Polynesian settlement.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)463-505
Number of pages43
JournalJournal of the Royal Society of New Zealand
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Bone
  • Comparison
  • New Zealand
  • Optical dating
  • Radiocarbon dating


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