Issue 134 Apr/May 2017 / 24 March, 2017
Reading the stones Marianna Terezow

Reading the stones

Ngāi Tūhoe are leading a two-year project to search for fossil remains in the streams that flow through Te Urewera. Leaving no stone unturned, scientists are teaching locals how to read kōhatu for signs of prehistoric life.

Whiuwhiu Tūtakangahau (Ngāi Te Paenga) pushes her hand deep into her pocket. The 8-year-old rummages around, pulls out a palmful of little stones. She digs into her pocket again and eventually retrieves a stone the colour of ivory and the size of a sparrow's egg. It has little pink cracks across the surface. Back at home Whiuwhiu already has quite a collection of kōhatu. She hasn't done an exact count but she estimates it's around 90—so many that her father is going to have to build more shelving for them all. They've all been gathered from the riverbeds near her house and school in Ruatāhuna, the Tūhoe settlement in the heart of Te Urewera. But this one, webbed with pink like delicate veins, she plucked from the Ngutuwera Stream in the hills that surround her community. It's her new favourite taonga.

Whiuwhiu is the youngest in an expedition party exploring the Ngutuwera, where she found her kōhatu deep in the river mud, which forms the headwaters of the Ruatāhuna River. There are two other parties searching different waterways—one tracking tributaries further upstream, another on the Mimiha River to the west. Coming from various Ruatāhuna hapū—Ngāi Te Paenga, Te Urewera and Ngāti Manunui—many are locals who regularly climb the ridges and hunt in the clearings, familiar with every gurgling creek and kahikatea.

The expedition is also made up of those from other districts of Te Rohe Pōtae o Te Urewera too. From Te Waimana Kaaku and Ruatoki, to Waikaremoana and Waiōhau. They're happy to be guided into country they've never been to before, to splash through new waters. Like Whiuwhiu, everyone on this journey wants to deepen their understanding of the land.

What taonga could a river stone reveal to those who live off this land?

A glimpse of the prehistory of Te Urewera. Each kōhatu that is rolled over and examined could potentially hold the remains of creatures that stalked the earth hundreds of millions of years ago. Ngā mokonui. Dinosaurs.

The evidence has been found before. In the mid-1970's amateur "rock hound" Joan Wiffen stumbled upon an old oil exploration map with a notation that reptile bones had been found in the Mangahouanga Stream near Maungataniwha, on the southern boundary of Te Urewera. Using this knowledge Wiffen and her family searched the stream and found those bones. With the help of the New Zealand Geological Survey she was able to process her finds, which turned out to belong to marine reptiles. In the late 1980s Wiffen made a find that came from a land dwelling dinosaur. In subsequent years she collected more bones from a variety a dinosaurs including the great long-necked Titanosaur, the flying Pterosaur and a piece of tail vertebrae thought to belong to a large carnivorous theropod similar to Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Maungataniwha, where Wiffen made her discoveries, is rich with deposits of bedrock called Tahora sandstone. It is this sandstone that contains the fossils and bones of the marine reptiles and dinosaurs that once occupied Aotearoa.

Article continues in issue 134

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