Ancient Phoenicians in New Zealand? A recent book makes the claim, but the evidence doesn’t bear scrutiny.

Ross Wiseman’s book, New Zealand’s Hidden Past (Discovery Press, 2001), is his personal analysis of over 100 inscribed rock drawings on Mount Tauhara near Taupo. He claims they are evidence that Phoenicians from the Mediterranean lived beside Lake Taupo before the Taupo eruption, dated around AD 200. He declares confidently that 2000 years ago there were nine Phoenician settlements spread around New Zealand from Northland to Otago comprising at least 1000 people whose forebears arrived around 600 BC in a fleet of about 10 square-rigged ships. They built pyramid-styled houses and hunted moa with bows and curved throwing sticks. They established a centre at sacred Mount Tauhara and had a charismatic leader called Ishmun (the name of a Phoenician god).

Wiseman extrapolates all this detail and more from the Tauhara rock drawings and similar drawings at other sites around New Zealand. Notable amongst the drawings are detailed maps of the world and New Zealand which he argues must be dated before the Taupo eruption.

These are extraordinary claims. We would be entitled to insist on a bit more hard evidence than a collection of peculiar rock drawings. In the large corpus of New Zealand archaeological evidence from hundreds of excavations over the past century or more we could expect to find some hint of such a significant group of inhabitants. Where are their dwelling sites, bones, artifacts, tools, food rubbish middens and other paraphernalia of domestic life? Where are the site-specific radiocarbon dates? And where are their present-day descendants with the appropriate genealogical traditions? So far, no carbon dates from archaeological sites have identified human habitation in New Zealand older than about 1000 years.

Sixth century BC Phoenicians had metal tools, coins and a written language with an alphabet similar to that of classical Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic. We could expect such people to leave easily identifiable linguistic inscriptions associated with their art and practices, and easily identifiable settlement sites with abundant artifacts including metal and its related technology. Maybe we have just not found them yet. If we do find them it will be very exciting. But a collection of enigmatic rock markings is not enough.

How has Wiseman arrived at these elaborate conclusions? You don’t have to look far into his book to find the answer: a vivid imagination, heavy doses of fanciful speculation, flawed methodology and argumentation, and careless, amateurish procedures masquer-ading as careful science. On detailed scrutiny his case falls apart.

For a start, he dates the rock drawings by a method he invented himself from his own dubious theory of the erosion rate of Rangitaiki ignimbrite (the type of rock in which the drawings are inscribed). After having two geology academics tell him that such a method would be too difficult he forged ahead anyway.

Interestingly, he obtained an age of 2000 years for the rock drawings, but only by misplacing a decimal point in the crucial calculation. This aside, his dating method is intriguing for its naivety. He took silicon moulds of the cut depths of two examples of rock markings. One was a less distinct specimen found on a ridge exposed to the weather; the other was a more clearly defined example found under an overhang protected from the weather. Wiseman carefully measured the difference between the cut depths of the two samples at 3mm and assumed this difference to be due to the erosion rate of ignimbrite from weathering since the cuts were made.

Unquantifiable Variables

The unquantifiable variables in this comparison are obvious at a glance, not the least being the whim of the carver at the time he determined the cut depths. Then there is the question of whether protection under an overhang is a guarantee of zero weathering. Then there is the question of whether the two samples were inscribed by the same artist at the same era. It is crucial to establish this independently, otherwise the argument is circular. The date of the drawings is what you are trying to establish, so you can’t assume both samples were made at the same date and then derive a date from that assumption.

He then determined an average erosion rate of ignimbrite over 30 million years to be 450 metres. He determined this figure by a geological argument I found incomprehensible, involving changes in the height of the volcanic plateau over 30 million years. Then, when he applied the figure he bungled the arithmetic. He concluded, “If it takes 30 million years to erode 450 metres of average hardness rock, this is equivalent to an erosion rate of 1.5 mm per 1000 years.” I’m afraid not. The arithmetic yields 15 mm per 1000 years. Either Wiseman didn’t check his maths, or he has incorporated some factor he didn’t tell us about.

When he applied the figure of 1.5mm per 1000 years to the 3mm difference between the cut depths of his two samples he got an age of 2000 years for the drawings. If he had applied the correct figure of 15mm per 1000 years he would have got an age of 200 years.

Although this is amusing, the dating method was so crude that it could not have produced an indicative age in any case.

He then presented evidence that he claims corroborates the 2000-year-old age. He identified a rock drawing which he deemed had been buried under the Taupo eruption ash layer and exposed by a slip in the 1970s. This led him to the conclusion that this drawing must have been done before the Taupo eruption. His analysis of the strata comes from the exposed sides of the slip, not from the location of the rock drawing in the centre of the slip, so the stratigraphy cannot be applied to the rock drawing. Also, he offers no evidence to rule out the possibility that the rock drawing may have been covered by more recent slips subsequent to the Taupo eruption and prior to the 1970s slip. In an erosion-prone area we could expect slips to occur more than once in 1800 years.

In support of his dating he also cites Dr Richard Holdaway’s 2000-year-old carbon dates for rat bones found in Nelson and the causal link between the presence of rats and human visits. Although Holdaway’s carbon dates are important, they are not site-specific to the Taupo rock drawings and so can’t be linked to them. Even if humans visited New Zealand 2000 years ago to bring the rats, no conclusions can be drawn from this about the age of the Taupo drawings.

More Supporting Evidence

Another piece of evidence Wiseman offers to support his theory is a marking found on a rock at Whakaipo Bay about 15km west of Mount Tauhara and reproduced in his book as a line drawing. He declares that it is an “exact” drawing of the seven stars of the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) commonly called the Little Dipper. “Each star has been incised as a deep circular hollow in the rock, with a small mound remaining at the centre,” he tells us.

Since this constellation is only visible in the northern hemisphere, Wiseman takes this marking to be evidence that the rock carver had knowledge of northern hemisphere stars. This would only be remarkable if it can be shown that the drawing predates already known visits to New Zealand by people from the northern hemisphere, and Wiseman has certainly not demonstrated that.

Correspondence Exaggerated

In any case, a cursory comparison of the drawing with actual star configurations reveals that Wiseman’s claim of “exact” correspondence is an exaggeration stemming from his own excitement. The rock marking can only be described as a very rough rendition of this constellation at any time in the last 3000 years. By joining the points in different ways I could also produce rough renditions of the Southern Cross-Pointers group and the Pleiades. Both these groups are visible from the southern hemisphere and both contain seven stars. You could probably find other approximations if you looked — star configurations are arbitrary and in the eye of the beholder. It seems not to have occurred to Wiseman that, in the absence of additional clues, the drawing might not represent stars at all.

We could dismiss Wiseman’s theory on the spurious dating alone, but there are other glaring flaws in his work. The material presented in his book consists of reproductions of the rock markings from silicon moulds, selective chalking, “enhanced” photographs, and third-generation scanned copies. Such practices clearly risk accidental contamination or modification of the evidence, or simple misinterpretation. He admits that some of the field work was done by his young children unsupervised.

I have not yet seen the Tauhara drawings for myself, but I was able to check the “Pakanae” map of New Zealand. This is a key ingredient in his case because the map includes Lake Taupo configured in a shape Wiseman believes is close to its shape before the Taupo eruption and therefore evidence that the map originated before that time. This map is reproduced in his book as a line drawing. He says it is to be found etched on a large stone hauled from the Hokianga Harbour in the 1950s. This stone now stands at Pakanae Marae as a memorial to Kupe.

The Stone Examined

Recently I examined the surface of this stone carefully and found that the only obvious engravings on it are initials carved in very recent times. On one side there are some natural raised humps on the surface which, with imagination, might be interpreted as a very rough shape of the North Island, or probably any other random shape you wanted to see in it (a hat or a boot?). The rock is covered in lichens which either help or hinder your search depending on what you are looking for. I could see nothing which could possibly yield the detailed shape in the drawing in Wiseman’s book, and certainly nothing which could justify the detailed conclusions he drew from it.

This looks to me like a classic case of a vivid imagination at work assigning great precision to something that is essentially impressionistic and therefore inherently imprecise. My experience in checking just this one item of Wiseman’s evidence makes me very cautious about accepting his other evidence at face value. Much of his analysis of the drawings displays this tendency to attribute precision to images which, in many cases, were obviously little more than artistic doodling and never intended to be definitive. On Wiseman’s own admission, the lack of clarity of some of the images makes it difficult to distinguish between natural and artificial marks. Yet there are several cases where he reads extraordinary symbolism and detail into the slightest scratch.

Another case in point is the map of the world reproduced as line drawings in his book and featured on the book’s cover in the form of a photo (“slightly highlighted,” as he puts it) of the actual Tauhara rock marking. In fact, the line highlighting on the photo is so dominant that the rock marking itself can’t be seen and therefore can’t be evaluated. His 9-year-old daughter had done the chalking unsupervised, and he didn’t notice the map himself until he later examined the photos of the chalking job.

A Convoluted Scenario

Putting these problems aside, let us assume that some artist drew a rough map of the world on this rock, and let us assume that Wiseman’s rendition of it in his book is faithful to the original. It is unmistakably a map of the continents of the world as we know them today. The inaccuracies are of the sort that I could create myself if I tried to do a freehand drawing of the world’s continents from memory.

Wiseman’s interpretation of this map is a convoluted scenario which dates it around AD 100 and attributes it to an artist descended from a group of Phoenician seafarers who sailed from the Mediterranean to New Zealand in the seventh century BC and eventually settled at Lake Taupo. He attributes the map’s accuracy to the assumption that the Phoenicians in the centuries before Christ were familiar with the entire map of the world because of their global trading and exploration voyages. The map includes, we should note, Antarctica and the Arctic coast of Canada, but excludes Britain, Scandinavia and the arctic coast of Russia and Siberia. Wiseman’s frantic attempt to make these facts fit his theory expresses awe at the Phoenician’s amazing knowledge of the world, oddly combined with the conclusion that they did not know about Britain! Did he consider the possibility that the artist just didn’t finish the drawing? Apparently not.

Another Explanation

The more obvious and prosaic scenario seems to have escaped Wiseman, namely, that the map’s detail virtually guarantees that it was drawn by a moderately well educated person in the last 200 years, or maybe even within the last 100 years by a person with a primary school education. A well known rule of thumb in this kind of inquiry is that if there is a choice between a complex and a simple explanation, the simple one is the more likely.

Wiseman often prefers the far-fetched version, and it gets him into difficulties. One drawing (which he dates before the Taupo eruption of course) seems to depict fallen trees, which he takes to be the flattened forests caused by the Taupo eruption. In fact, the content of the drawing is so ill-defined that you could read almost anything into it. Wiseman’s analysis is that, because the drawing was done before the Taupo eruption, it foresaw the Taupo eruption. Now hang on a minute. Here we have Wiseman arguing that because his dating of the drawing can’t be wrong the artist must have foreseen the Taupo eruption. Would not a drawing depicting an event be conclusive evidence that it was drawn after the event? Not for Wiseman it seems. Such contrived manipulation of the evidence to fit a strongly held theory, especially by resort to the paranormal, is grossly unscientific. But Wiseman dug himself into this quagmire by allowing his preconceived ideas to dictate his findings, and by reading detail into the rock markings that is simply not there.

Geometrical Shapes

Wiseman makes much of the geometrical shapes he finds in many of the rock drawings and reads extraordinary symbolism into them — a diamond symbolises life, a trapezium death, a circle materiality. He uses two such drawings to construct an abstruse symbolism depicting an ancient theory of the universe to support his theory of Phoenician origins. In these two drawings he identifies two-dimensional representations of cubes, dodecahedrons, a stellated dodecahedron and an icosahedron (the latter term he confusingly interchanges with the term stellated icosahedron). He concludes that the drawings “indicate that the Phoenicians knew of the existence of all 10 regular polyhedra and the symbolism behind them”, and that their knowledge in this field preempted western knowledge by more than 2000 years.

This sounds very impressive but is mathematically and historically garbled. A regular polyhedron (solid) is defined as one that has identical (congruent) regular polygons forming its faces and has all its polyhedral angles congruent. There are only five possible regular convex polyhedra: the tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron. Euclid defined them, Plato knew of them, and the Pythagoreans and probably all the early Middle Eastern mathematicians knew of at least three of them. The so-called stellated dodecahedron and stellated icosahedron are really examples of concave regular polyhedra.

As for the two drawings which feature these figures, on Wiseman’s own admission they are not well defined. The copy in his book of the figure he identifies as a stellated dodecahedron could as easily be identified as a stellated pentagon (a two-dimensional plane figure). The figure he identifies as an icosahedron (possibly he means a stellated icosahedron) can only be described as a confusing jumble of irregular triangles and other shapes from which it would be reckless to conclude anything. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Wiseman has constructed a complicated historical theory from a few casual geometric doodlings by someone who took pleasure in artistic creativity with no mathematical pretensions at all.

There can be no denying that the Tauhara rock drawings are tantalising, and it would be nice to know who made them. Although Wiseman is prone to fanciful interpretation of the slightest scratch, broad interpretation of some of the drawings is possible. One is a convincing line sketch of activities during a moa hunt. The moa is easy to identify, and the stick-figure hunters with spears certainly seem to be ambushing it. Moa feature unambiguously in several of the drawings, which cannot be surprising because archaeological excavations have produced evidence of moa hunters, dated about 600 years ago, in the lower layers of Whakamoenga Cave about 13km west of Mount Tauhara. Wiseman ignores this rather conspicuous clue about who might have made the moa drawings.

Sailing Vessels

Three drawings feature clear sketches of sailing vessels with yardarm or boom rigging. Wiseman seems to read more detail into these than is reasonable. There is certainly no imperative that they depict 2000-year-old Phoenician ship design as he argues. They are typical of the rough impressionistic sketches a school child might do on the back of an exercise book with no intention to be accurate. They could have been done at any time in the last 1000 years by anyone familiar with Polynesian craft, or within the last 200 years by anyone familiar with European craft. Artists often create a unique stylised version of an object applying artistic licence by economising on the detail or embellishing it.

Another example features a line drawing of a house which is not difficult to see as a high-walled, hip-roofed bungalow on wooden piles complete with a square window. Taken with the human and animal figures in the drawing it is possible to see the whole image as a New Zealand colonial farmyard scene. To Wiseman it is the Ishmun family home of AD 100 with a “new improved design of dwelling”. He even identifies which member of the family each stick figure represents, identifies one of the trees as a fruit tree, identifies a rectangular shape as a storage box, and identifies the animal as a milking goat.

Contrary to Wiseman’s assumption, it is entirely possible that the drawings on Mount Tauhara were not all done in the same era. Some may be 600 years old, and some may be only 50 years old – we probably won’t ever know for certain. Successive generations of humans may well have left their marks on the same group of suitable rocks. Humans are well known for following trends, fads, or a catchy idea. I have been known to scratch a cryptic image on a mountaintop myself.

Lateral Thinkers

Wiseman sees himself as part of a growing brigade of “lateral thinking amateur researchers” breaking through the barrier of the blinkered orthodox view of New Zealand history to reveal “the truth”. He complains that the media and mainstream academics invariably try to suppress anomalous “discoveries” such as his.

I find this ironical. I made a cursory analysis of media coverage of these fringe theories over the past 10 years and found they get at least as much coverage as orthodox theory. It is not an exaggeration to say that the media is hungry for sensation and pounces on a good mystery. They will especially jump at the chance to publicise maverick researchers challenging orthodox theory, and they especially love conspiracy theories claiming that mainstream science has suppressed scientific information. Expert refutations are often relegated to brief addenda, or reluctantly presented later with less prominence, because they are perceived as boring.

A classic case was the media frenzy about the Kaimanawa stone wall in 1996. (It needs to be repeated that geologists confidently declared it to be a natural rock formation, but the credulous still believe it is man made).

Wiseman was completely free to make his self-published book available to the world through book shops and libraries without restriction and without any prior critical assessment or expert evaluation.

Even if the book is total fantasy the citizens are free to read it uncritically and swallow it whole if they want to, and many will. What more could Wiseman ask for? If the book is scientifically substandard, he can’t be surprised if mainstream researchers don’t want to waste time dialoguing with him.

Probabilities and Certainties

Theorists such as Wiseman seem to have little understanding of how science works. Much science relies on probabilities rather than certainties with conclusions expressed as confidence levels based on the abundance of the evidence. Archaeological investigations can never give full coverage to all the possibilities and must be done by prioritising representative samples or targeting highly suggestive clues based on current knowledge and known patterns.

The current corpus of evidence of human settlement in New Zealand is already substantial enough to be indicative to high confidence levels. We are talking here of a body of evidence from hundreds of excavations, hundreds of carbon dates and thousands of artifacts.

Of course, the discovery of revolutionary new evidence is always possible. Wiseman is obviously convinced that archaeologists have not looked in the right place to find the evidence that would prove his theory. Maybe so. But the archaeologists are the most competent people to assess that. Every archaeologist would love to be the first to find evidence of 2000-year-old human habitation in New Zealand. I don’t think Wiseman’s book will help them much.

It is difficult to find any scientifically redeeming features in this book. But speculation is socially acceptable if it is not claimed to be anything else. Wiseman claims to have made “the most significant archaeological discovery in New Zealand history.” Time will tell about that. Richard Holdaway’s rat bone datings indicate that humans made at least casual, itinerant or accidental visits to New Zealand 2000 years ago.

But it is much more likely that such visitors were from the Pacific Islands than from Europe, given the well-documented facts that these islands were only about 20 days sailing time from New Zealand and were inhabited by accomplished seafarers 2000 years ago. And we could not rule out the possibility that humans actually settled here 2000 years ago (by “settled” I mean dwelt and bred successive generations). But no hard evidence exists for this at present. Wiseman’s book does not constitute such evidence. It is little more than pseudoscientific credulity, and a blind alley that will mislead many gullible readers.

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