“So scant my fare, my bones are bare…”?

Today’s blog explains some of the results of chemical analysis of diet in the St. John’s Milton sample. It is based around the team’s recently accepted paper in the Journal of Historical Archaeology.

Extract from the Otago Witness 21st March 1868 (Issue 851), with one reader at least feeling very melodramatic about the lack of meat in the New Zealand diet. Accessed via Papers Past (National Library of New Zealand)

From the 1860s to the 1890s complaints abound in the Otago papers about meat prices. The cutting above is from the Otago Witness and quotes a poem originally published in Britain’s Punch magazine. People were upset that life in the colony involved expensive food and they were vocal about it!

Meat prices were a huge issue in the UK – one of the main reasons people emigrated to NZ was to escape poverty and get better access to resources. High food prices in Britain meant few could afford meat – but in New Zealand that was all supposed to change. The Official Handbook of New Zealand, designed to prepare emigrants for life in the colony, was full of big claims about meat-eating…

“the labouring classes use a much more generous diet. The cheapness of meat especially surprises the newly arrived immigrant” (Vogel 1875: 259).

Letters home from colonists are full of people boasting about the amount of meat they eat.

So historical records from the time paint two very different pictures – British propaganda advertises a ‘land of plenty’, but local papers tell us that probably wasn’t the case. Which is it?

Well, luckily we can use people’s bone chemistry to find out!

By looking at the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios in bone collagen we can get a good idea of what people were really eating in Milton.  That’s not to say we can look at collagen and tell exactly what the person had for breakfast, it’s a bit less precise than that. But we can see how much people ate different food groups (like farmed meat, freshwater fish, seafood and plant foods). Which means we can tell how much meat was in the diet of the Milton settlers…

People eating different food groups have broadly different isotopic ratios. This graph shows the the isotope ratios we’d expect from the different food groups colonists might have been eating. The white circles are the people from Milton, who fall in an area where they are likely eating a mixture of farmed crops, animals and freshwater fish and birds 

So what was diet like for our colonists? Well, kind of what you’d expect from British farmers. Settlers relied on their staple crops like wheat, oat and vegetables, but also ate some farmed animals and freshwater fish/birds. Actually their isotope results suggest they ate a lot more freshwater fish and birds than people at ‘home’. Freshwater resources were plentiful in the local Tokomairiro wetlands (they were important mahika kai, or places for food gathering, before colonists got to the area). Fish such as eel (tuna) and kōkopu, as well as game birds such as kererū and whio would potentially have been used to keep protein intake up when farmed meat was too expensive to buy. The colonists might have complained about not being able to buy meat, but they weren’t starving by any means!

The European settlers may have been upset about the amount of farmed meat available, but they still managed to get their protein… probably by making use of the native species in the wetlands around them . (Photos: Long-finned eel, giant kōkopu, whio and kererū, all from Wiki Commons)

It might surprise modern New Zealanders to find that the earliest settlers to Milton really weren’t eating seafood at all though. While nowadays NZ prides itself on our fresh fish and shellfish, in the past settlers seem to have been less in love with the sea. We’re not sure why this is, Milton is pretty close to the coast and we know people in nearby Dunedin ate fish. But there wasn’t a fishmongers in Milton until 1885, over 30 years after Europeans first moved into the area so it might have been hard to get hold of fish. It’s also possible that people chose not to eat seafood because they saw it as beneath them. It was the food of the poor in industrial England, one Victorian commentator wrote that:

“the rooms of the very neediest of our needy metropolitan population always smell of fish” (Mayhew, 1851).

Perhaps starting a new life in New Zealand meant deliberately leaving certain foods behind and foregoing the fish and chips!

Fish and chips might be a staple today, but in early Milton settlers ignored the riches of the ocean and focused on crops and animals from the land (photo from wiki commons).

Charlotte King


King, C. et al (2020). A Land of Plenty? Colonial Diet in Rural New Zealand. Journal of Historic Archaeology. In Press.

Mayhew, H. (1851). London Labour and the London Poor. Penguin Books, London.

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