A New Zealand 'historian' is under investigation, following VICE's report that he appeared to have been grave-robbing sacred Māori burial sites.
VICE NZ reported this month that grave robbers with far-right links could be stealing ancestral Māori skulls, in a bid to prove their theory that New Zealand's indigenous people were Europeans, not Māori.
Heritage New Zealand confirmed to VICE that Noel Hilliam was now under investigation for possibly taking human remains from archaeological sites.
Senior archaeologist Frank van der Heijden said under the act "if we take it to court it could result in a criminal conviction and fine". He said it was too early in the investigation to know if it would go to court, and that decision would be made on a case by case basis.
Disturbing an archaeological site is a criminal offence, and could carry a possible fine of up to $60,000.
He added that "All of the scientific, oral, and historical evidence gathered to date says there is absolutely no evidence of occupation of New Zealand prior to the arrival of Polynesians, around 1200 AD."
When VICE asked Hilliam previously whether he had concerns that under the Human Tissue Act it could be illegal removing human remains, he said "yeah I'm fully aware of that. I'm prepared to front up to any institution in New Zealand, including the police."
Hilliam said he was fully aware it was illegal to remove ancient remains and send them overseas, but said he did it anyway as the law was unjust.
Hilliam is part of what he describes as a "loose collective" of self-proclaimed historians, some of whom have far right connections—including a former secretary of the National Front and former spokesman for the New Zealand Fascist Union.
Archaeologist Donna Yates told VICE that not only is there no conclusive historical evidence for a pre-Māori European settlers, the story is also part of a broader picture of racist mythology designed to undermine Māori and their indigenous rights to land. "This fits into a larger pattern of racist denial of Indigenous achievement that we see around the world".
Speaking to RNZ, local kaumatua Ben de Thierry said he was shocked by Mr Hilliam's claims, and supported the investigation by Heritage New Zealand.
Dr Ngarino Gabriel Ellis told VICE at the time that for anyone to take skulls from historic burial sites was "reprehensible".
Hilliam's original claims about a pre-Māori European race were initially published by the Northern Advocate. The Advocate has since taken its story down, and issued an apology of sorts, saying it "accepts it was wrong to publish Mr Hilliam's theory of pre-Māori occupation before receiving information from the university that Mr Hilliam cited as a source of his reconstructed drawings."
Van der Heijde said if you do find human remains in New Zealand, the appropriate thing to do was to call the police or Heritage New Zealand.
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