A Land of Plenty? Colonial Diet in Rural New Zealand

Abstract

Colonial New Zealand was built on the ideal of creating better lives for settlers. Emigrants came looking to escape the shackles of the class system and poor conditions in Industrial Revolution–period Britain. Colonial propaganda claimed that most emigrants achieved their aims, but the lives the colonists actually experienced upon reaching New Zealand remain relatively unexplored from a biosocial perspective. In this article we present a pilot study of stable-isotope test results of bone collagen from seven adults interred in St. John’s Cemetery, Milton, New Zealand (ca. 1860–1900). We interpret the diet at Milton and broadly compare our isotopic results with contemporaneous samples from Britain. We show that, as in contemporary Britain, the diet of our studied individuals was focused on C3 crops and terrestrial meat sources. Despite higher δ15N values in contemporary UK populations (which can be simplistically interpreted as indicative of higher meat intake), consideration of different local baselines makes it likely that this New Zealand population had relatively similar levels of meat intake. Interestingly, marine resources did not form an important part of the Milton diet, despite the site’s proximity to the ocean, hinting at the possible stigmatization of local resources and the development of a European New Zealand (pākehā) food identity.

Resumen

La Nueva Zelanda colonial se construyó sobre el ideal de crear mejores vidas para los colonos. Los emigrantes vinieron buscando escapar de las cadenas del sistema de clases y las malas condiciones en la Gran Bretaña del período de la Revolución Industrial. La propaganda colonial afirmó que la mayoría de los emigrantes lograron sus objetivos, pero las vidas que los colonos realmente experimentaron al llegar a Nueva Zelanda permanecen relativamente inexploradas desde una perspectiva biosocial. En este artículo presentamos un estudio piloto de los resultados de pruebas de isótopos estables de colágeno óseo de siete adultos enterrados en el cementerio de St. John, Milton, Nueva Zelanda (ca. 1860–1900). Interpretamos la dieta en Milton y comparamos ampliamente nuestros resultados isotópicos con muestras contemporáneas de Gran Bretaña. Mostramos que, como en la Gran Bretaña contemporánea, la dieta de los individuos estudiados se centró en cultivos C3 y fuentes de carne terrestre. A pesar de los valores más altos de δ15N en las poblaciones contemporáneas del Reino Unido (que pueden interpretarse de manera simplista como indicativos de una mayor ingesta de carne), la consideración de diferentes líneas de base locales lleva a considerar que es probable que esta población de Nueva Zelanda tuviera niveles relativamente similares de ingesta de carne. Curiosamente, los recursos marinos no formaron una parte importante de la dieta de Milton, a pesar de la proximidad del sitio al océano, lo que sugiere la posible estigmatización de los recursos locales y el desarrollo de una identidad alimentaria neozelandesa europea (pākehā).

Résumé

La Nouvelle-Zélande coloniale s’est construite sur un idéal de création d’une vie meilleure pour les colons. Les émigrants sont venus pour échapper aux chaînes du système de classe et aux conditions misérables de l’Angleterre de la Révolution industrielle. La propagande coloniale prétendait que la plupart des émigrants réalisaient leurs objectifs, mais l’existence dont les colons ont véritablement fait l’expérience lorsqu’ils ont atteint la Nouvelle-Zélande demeure relativement peu étudiée d’un point de vue biosocial. Nous présentons dans cet article une étude pilote portant sur les résultats de tests d’isotope stable du collagène osseux provenant de sept adultes enterrés au cimetière de St. John à Milton, Nouvelle-Zélande (vers 1860–1900). Nous interprétons le régime alimentaire de Milton et effectuons une vaste comparaison de nos résultats isotopiques avec des échantillons contemporains issus de Grande-Bretagne. Nous démontrons que tout comme dans l’actuelle Grande-Bretagne, le régime alimentaire des individus objets de l’étude se composait essentiellement de sources de cultures C3 et de viandes terrestres. En dépit de valeurs plus élevées δ15N dans les populations du Royaume-Uni contemporain (pouvant être interprétées de manière simpliste comme indiquant une consommation plus importante de viande), l’examen de différentes bases de référence locales permet de conclure de manière vraisemblable que cette population de Nouvelle-Zélande avait une consommation de viande à des niveaux relativement similaires. Il est intéressant de relever que les ressources marines ne formaient pas une partie importante du régime alimentaire de Milton, en dépit de la proximité du site avec l’océan, suggérant une possible stigmatisation des ressources locales et le développement d’une identité alimentaire européenne en Nouvelle-Zélande (pākehā).

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Acknowledgments:

This analysis was funded through a Marsden Fast-Start Grant awarded to Charlotte L. King. Funding for the initial excavation was provided by a grant-in-aid from the Department of Anatomy, University of Otago. We are grateful to the excavation team (including staff and students from the University of Otago; Wayne Stevenson, who donated both his time and use of his digger; and Grant Love [the farmer] for the use of his hay barn, water supply, and access to his land).

The TP60 group members who instigated the work at St. John’s Cemetery and provided a vast amount of background research are Robert Findlay, Kath Croy, Isobel Michelle, Mary-Anne Miller, and Rev. Vivienne Galletly. Bishop Kelvin Wright supported the project wholeheartedly and provided his permission for the excavation to be undertaken. Megan Callaghan, the health-protection officer at Public Health South guided us through the disinterment-license process. Rachel Wesley provided Maori cultural guidance and participated in the excavation. Richard Walter and Phil Latham of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology provided much of the excavation and field equipment. We are also grateful to Steve Robertson and Beth Upex for their help in the laboratories at Durham University.

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Correspondence to Charlotte L. King.

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This study was funded through a Marsden Fast-Start Grant (New Zealand Marsden Fund Grant No. UOO1721) awarded to Charlotte L. King. Excavation was supported by a grant-in-aid from the Department of Anatomy, University of Otago.

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King, C.L., Petchey, P., Kinaston, R. et al. A Land of Plenty? Colonial Diet in Rural New Zealand. Hist Arch (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41636-020-00276-y

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Keywords

  • carbon
  • nitrogen
  • stable isotopes
  • colonialism
  • pākehā