Finding human bones

From time to time, people may unearth bones while laying the foundations for a new building, gardening or even digging at the beach or on the farm. Often erosion will unearth bones naturally.

Tell the police if you find bones

If you find bones that you think may be human, leave the bones in place and tell the police.

The police will usually call in a forensic pathologist to find out if the bones are human and if they’re historic or recent.

If the bones are found to be human, the police will report the death to the coroner.

The coroner’s role

If the bones are found in a place that’s known to be a historic burial ground, the coroner will probably decide that the death is historic so there’s no need to investigate.

If the site isn’t a recognised burial ground or historic site, the coroner will try to find out how long they’ve been buried and who they belong to. An archaeologist may be asked to help the police and the coroner find out the age of the burial or site. It is then up to the coroner to decide whether or not to take responsibility for looking into the death.

Significance for Māori

Finding koiwi tangata (human remains) is of particular significance for Māori. Most accidental finds of historical human bones will be Māori.

Once it’s known that the koiwi are historic, Heritage New Zealand will be contacted. Heritage New Zealand will go to the scene and talk with the local iwi and hapū.

Iwi will take kaitiaki (guardianship) of the koiwi. Iwi take this responsibility very seriously and will accord respect and dignity to all koiwi found in their rohe (iwi boundaries).

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