A group of fringe "archaeologists" and self-proclaimed historians have been hijacking New Zealand's media with tales of a pre-Māori European race. VICE has found at least one of them has been raiding what could be sacred Māori grave sites and removing skulls. So who is the group, what are their far-right connections, and how do they keep getting airtime in New Zealand media?
The headline popped up this weekend: "Pre-Māori faces created from skulls, says Northland historian". Initially published by the Northern Advocate, it was then picked up by New Zealand's largest newspaper, the Herald. The story features an interview with Northland 'historian' Noel Hilliam, who claimed he'd found skulls that pre-date Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. He provides facial reconstructions from an anonymous forensic pathologist from the University of Edinburgh to back up his claims—they're blonde haired, with Caucasian features.
The story, if true, would be astonishing—and require a total rethink of New Zealand's accepted history of colonisation. It hints at a vast conspiracy of academics, historians and Māori interest groups. But it quickly began to unravel.
When VICE contacted University of Edinburgh about the mysterious forensic pathologist, one of the communications staff replied that she'd checked with several departments in the University. "Nobody knows anything about this," she said. "The Forensic Pathology department is not part of the University but I checked with them and they are none the wiser either. I'm struggling to think who else it could be."
In short, she concludes: "We are not aware of any academic from the University of Edinburgh having contributed to this project."
Then came a brief storm from New Zealand and international archeologists, who labelled the story "racist unscientific filth"
Dr Siân Halcrow, a bio-archaeologist at University of Otago, said there was zero scientific evidence for a so-called 'pre-Māori' race.
From an archeological perspective, she said the story almost immediately seemed ludicrous.
"Several alarm bells went off for me when reading the claims about ancestry and other characteristics from the skeletons," she said. "The statement that the young adult woman is from Wales is ludicrous. There is no way to find that information out from the skull size and shape, nor is it possible to tell that a person has blue eyes and blonde hair from skeletal features.
She said the reconstruction images were "comical".
Halcrow also noted the article "quoted that she was 130cms tall, which likely means that they have not measured her stature correctly from the bones, as that would mean she was smaller than the average size of a person with dwarfism."
The New Zealand Herald quietly pulled down the story on Wednesday.
"Taking from urupā, just like from anyone's grave, is a violation of our funeral practices. These are our ancestors. They were not intended to be removed and distributed."
But beyond the shaky archaeological credentials, Hilliam looks to have committed a much greater violation—disturbing sacred Māori burial sites to steal the skulls.
Dr Ngarino Gabriel Ellis is a senior lecturer at Auckland University, and had just finished a series of lectures on burial sites when the Herald story came out. Reading it, she immediately questioned whether urupā [sacred Māori burial sites] had been robbed. "How else would they get the heads? You can't buy them, that's illegal to buy sell human remains in New Zealand," she said.
For anyone to take skulls from historic burial sites was "reprehensible" and possibly criminal, she said.
"It is the violation of a sacred site. Them raiding urupā and acquiring ancestral heads—they haven't said where from—makes me really concerned. As does the fact the Herald published it and didn't ask where they were from. Taking from urupā, just like from anyone's [grave], is a violation of our funeral practices. These are our ancestors. They were not intended to be removed and distributed."
"It's also illegal to go and tamper with anyone's grave—so why aren't there criminal charges being pressed?"
She added that internationally there were now strict guidelines around the study and distribution of ancestral bones, including under the Human tissues Act UK—which made it highly unlikely any reputable university would be accepting ancestral bones from New Zealand without making extensive checks with local iwi.
Hilliam said he was fully aware it was illegal to send human remains overseas, but still did it as the law was unjust.
After several failed attempts, VICE finally reached Noel Hilliam, who said yes, he'd taken skulls and bones from a number of historic burial sites around the Northland area.
Asked if he consulted with local iwi about disturbing the sites, he said: "No. I don't have to."
"They're nothing to do with the iwi" he said.
He said he'd previously gone to take bones with a forensic pathologist from London, back in 1997. He said the man—whom he wouldn't name—took an eye tooth back to London analyse.
Asked by VICE if he had concerns about whether under the Human Tissue Act it could be illegal taking the eye tooth back to the UK, 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 send ancient human remains overseas, but said he did it anyway as the law was unjust. He said he could not put VICE in touch with the man as he had since died.
The visualisations in the Herald article, he said, were created by a different woman, who he said trained in Edinburgh. He did not know which institution she'd trained with, and would not name the woman. He said when she showed interest, Hilliam went and took two skulls from a site for her.
"This fits into a larger pattern of racist denial of Indigenous achievement that we see around the world".
But who exactly are the group behind the original claims? When stories on New Zealand's "pre-Māori Europeans" come up—as they have successively since 2008—it's often the same three sources. As well as Hilliam, the article also quotes Kerry Bolton, whose publication Lords of the Soil states that "Polynesia has been occupied by peoples of the Europoid race since ancient times". Bolton is a former secretary of the National Front—a far right group which now has a small white-pride and skinhead membership. He is also a former spokesman for the New Zealand Fascist Union, and made several complaints to the Press Council during his tenure. He was the subject of a 2008 thesis "Dreamers of the Dark: Kerry Bolton and the Order of the Left Hand Path, a Case-study of a Satanic/Neo-Nazi Synthesis," which examined alleged connections between National Socialist and Satanist factions in New Zealand. On his Facebook page—which, has garnered 666 followers—he plugs books on the "new world order" and the "Parihaka myth". His profile picture is the flag of Austrian Fascist party the Fatherland Front. Also referenced is Martin Doutre, of the One New Zealand Foundation, whose previous leader Allan Titford was jailed for rape and arson following a long-running campaign against local iwi. Hilliam told VICE that he, Bolton, and Doutre were part of a "loose collective" who were "trying to get the true early history of this country."
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".
VICE has contacted local iwi but had not heard back at the time of publication. This story will be updated if they choose to comment.
Follow Tess on Twitter.