This cave, used by Archaic Māori, was undiscovered for 600 years.
The area of Raekura (Redcliffs) was a significant site of shelter and mahinga kai (food gathering) for many generations of Māori between the early fourteenth century and 1840. A network of waterways in the Te Ihutai (Avon-Heathcote Estuary) area provided communities with food sources such as shellfish, fish, plants and birds. Moncks Cave, a site of on and off habitation by Māori, was sealed by a landslide between 1400 and 1500BC. When it was uncovered by road workers in 1889, it provided a time capsule of the late Archaic period of Māori settlement and contained some of what is now regarded as the oldest and rarest taonga (treasure) in New Zealand.
The first archaeological excavation was undertaken soon after the cave was discovered. Taonga unearthed included items of perishable materials such as fishing net fragments and hair that had survived in the sealed, dry cave. Also found was a canoe paddle, float and bailer, a rei kuri (wooden carving of a dog), paua bowls, bone bird-spear points, and fish hooks. The rei kuri is iconic as one of the few depictions of the ancient Māori dog and the style of carving is very different to any sculpture found in the North Island.
Moncks Cave is also notable for answering key questions about moa extinction. During an excavation in 1996, shell midden deposits were found and radio carbon dated to circa 1400, placing the contents found in the cave toward the end of the Archaic age. Conspicuous only by their absence were unworked moa bones that might be present if moa were being consumed at the site. With Moncks Cave in such close proximity to other locations in Redcliffs where moa was prepared, cooked and eaten, it has been suggested that moa extinction happened prior to the main period of habitation of Moncks Cave – in the first century of Māori occupation of Aotearoa.
The taonga found in Moncks Cave over the past century inform much of what we now know about the development of decorative Māori art, which along with the chronology of moa extinction makes it a highly significant archaeological site that reveals details about Māori life in one of the earliest periods of settlement.
Since the Canterbury earthquakes, the cave has been inaccessible due to rock fall hazard. Recent landscaping has tidied the section so you can now view the cave entrance through a fence. You can also visit the Canterbury Museum(external link) to see many of the taonga unearthed at Moncks Cave in the Iwi Tawhito gallery.
Read about the significance of Moncks Cave in the Christchurch District Plan(external link).