New Zealand (NZ) was the last major landmass settled by humans. Although the exact date of settlement remains contentious, the ecological signal shows a dramatic loss of forest, accompanied by rapid faunal collapse, c. 1300 AD. While these changes are well-documented, how they occurred is less clear. Most of NZ’s forest was wet and likely difficult to burn; long-term conversion of wet forest to scrub is thought to have required repeated, frequent burning. However, significant forest loss occurred even in remote areas, such as the southern central South Island, where evidence for sedentary human settlements is limited. The pattern and scope of these changes, coupled with low-density transient populations, begs the question: ‘how could early Māori so rapidly transform the landscape over such large areas?’ Using a combination of methodological approaches - simulation modelling, data-mining methods and field-based studies - I will explore this question, one that is central to understanding the rapid ecological changes that NZ and other islands in east Polynesia experienced following human contact. I will conclude by looking at the legacies that the introduction and use of fire by Māori and Europeans has left on NZ’s (formerly) forest landscapes.
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