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Symbols, median age; bars, upper and lower limits of 2σ age range.Vertical dashed lines, 1σ age range of oldest archaeological site in New Zealand (1280–1382 A. The contentious early series of old rat bone dates (20, 21) is the only direct evidence in support of an early human presence in New Zealand. We also dated 13 rat bones selected from the same collections of bones originally excavated and now held in museum collections, representing seven of the 1995–1996 series of rat bone sampling sites (20, 21): Predator Cave, Hawke's Cave, Earthquakes #1, Gordon's Valley (sites 2a, 4, and 7), Hanging Rock, Ardenest, and Timpendean (Fig. The calibrated ages of rat bones from these museum collections are also all younger than 1280 A. and overlap only with our reexcavated rat bone dates and with other rat bone dates processed in 19 (Fig. Locations of laughing owl bone sites, seed deposits, and seed test pits in New Zealand.2), ≈50 km from Predator Cave, which produced the oldest rat bone dates (20, 21). The upper age limit for initial rat arrival can be further constrained by the age of the Kaharoa Tephra, a volcanic ash found in northeastern North Island, which has been wigglematch-dated to 1314 ± 12 A. (45), because rat-gnawed seeds have been found buried within this ash (22).

The most telling criticism of the original dates is that they fall into two distinct groups according to when the bones were processed in the same dating laboratory (22, 36, 37) (see Fig. The early series of rat bone dates processed in 19 are all older than the oldest-dated archaeological evidence (≈1280 A.The devastating ecological consequences of human arrival are well documented on many East Polynesian islands and show striking similarities in terms of deforestation (2) and faunal extinctions or declines (3–11), with one model suggesting dispersal from West Polynesia as early as 200 B. (1, 9, 10) after a pause of ≈500–1,000 years and another suggesting it began ≈800 A. after a delay of several thousand years (8, 12–16).These divergent chronologies and their related models of ecological and anthropological change result directly from various interpretations of conflicting radiocarbon dates on the earliest-dated archaeological sites, deforestation, Pacific rat introduction, and faunal extinctions from East Polynesia and have created many hotly debated “long” and “short” settlement chronologies (e.g., refs. These unresolved and contradictory age models currently hinder our understanding of the timing and processes of prehistoric human dispersal from West Polynesia (17) and rates of anthropogenic environmental change, faunal extinction, population growth, technological change, development of regionality in material culture and horticultural expansion on each island (18).Our method exploits the fact that the omnivorous rat was transported throughout the Pacific by prehistoric people and multiplied rapidly after its initial introduction.Consequently, introduction of rats to previously rat-free islands is unlikely to remain invisible in the palaeoecological record for any length of time.

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The Pacific rat currently exerts high predation pressure on seeds (43) and has been implicated in the extinction of several prehistoric plants (13, 44).