Art. V.—Some observations on the Annual Address of the President of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, delivered on the 1st March, 1871.
[Read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, 5th April, 1871.]
In his very interesting paper on “Moas and Moa-hunters,” our President spoke of the absence of any reliable traditions, amongst the Maoris generally, regarding the causes that led to the extinction of the Moa. He concludes from this, and other evidence, that the extinction of the Moa was long antecedent to the settlement of these islands by the Maori race. There is very strong presumptive evidence in support of his view, that the Maoris were not the moa-hunters. But that the Dinornis was hunted, and became extinct ages before the advent of the Maori, is a conclusion hardly deducible from the facts upon which the theory is based. The present Maori inhabitants—Ngai Tahu—have occupied this island for about ten generations. Allowing twenty-five years for a generation, their occupation dates back 250 years. In none of the traditions relating to this period, though numerous and detailed, are there any allusions to the Moa. We may safely conclude, then, that, for that period at least, the Moa has been extinct. The Ngai Tahu found this island in the possession of the Ngati-mamoe, another Maori tribe, whom they exterminated or absorbed. The Ngati-mamoe having previously succeeded Waitaha, a tribe
descended from a chief of that name, who arrived from Hawaiki in the canoe ‘Arawa,’ twenty generations ago. Ngai Tahu having incorporated the remnants of the two preceding tribes, the traditions of these tribes would become the property of Ngai Tahu, and be handed down with the rest of their tribal lore to posterity. Now, while these traditions are full and distinct in everything else to which they relate, and extend as far back as to events that occurred before the migration from Hawaiki, they only contain very vague and meagre references to the Moa. It is inconceivable that an observant and intelligent people like the Maoris should be without traditions of such exciting sport as moa-hunting, had they ever engaged in it. And these traditions, did they exist, would not be confined to particular localities, but would be met with in every part of these islands in which the remains of the Dinornis are found. I have occasionally heard in the North Island stories of moa hunts, but they were regarded by all, but those perhaps who related them, as pure fabrications. In common with most people, I was long under the impression that the extinction of the Moa was an event of recent date, and hastened by the Maori. I took it for granted that the natives only required to be questioned to afford every information regarding its nature and habits, and the causes of its disappearance. Further inquiry, however, has led me to think that the Maoris were not moa-hunters, and that the bones that strewed the plains of Canterbury were lying there at a period anterior to the last migration from Hawaiki. I am strongly confirmed in this opinion by the fact that Mr. Colenso, after careful inquiry thirty-three years ago—when circumstances were more favourable for the collection of reliable traditions—came to the same conclusion. I may remark, in passing, that Sir George Grey published a collection of traditions gathered from all parts of New Zealand. In none of them is any allusion made to moa-hunting, though frequent references are made to kiwi and weka-hunting, and sport of other kinds. But how are we to account for any allusions to the Moa at all in Maori poetry and proverbs, unless the people were familiar with it? Dr. Thompson, as quoted by the President, says “That the Moa was alive when the first settlers came, is evident from the name of this bird being mixed up with their songs and stories.” But Dr. Thompson was probably not aware that the Maoris were familiar with a large land-bird which they called a Moa before ever they came to New Zealand. The name by which the Cassowary is known in the islands is Moa; and as it somewhat resembles the Dinornis in form, an exaggerated description of it would be a sufficiently accurate description of that gigantic bird to mislead anyone not fully prepared to question the knowledge of the Maoris upon the subject, into supposing that they were perfecrly familiar with its form and habits. I remember hearing, when a child, of the beautiful plumes that were found at the top of the cliff which overhung a cavern somewhere on the East
Coast of the North Island, where the last of the Moas hid itself. But no one I ever met had seen them. Those who described them had only heard of them from others. It is quite possible that moa feathers may have been found and used as ornaments, but it is not necessary to believe they were so to account for the description the Maoris give of them. The feathers of the Cassowary are used as ornaments in the islands where they exist, and probably the ancestors of the Maori brought some away with them. These, from their rareness, would be highly prized and carefully preserved, and when all recollection of the Hawaikian Moa had faded away, would be thought to belong to that Moa of which remains were everywhere visible. In the same way, we may account for the saying regarding the toughness of the Moa's flesh, which could only be thoroughly cooked with the twigs of the koromiko, by supposing that it was the flesh of the Hawaikian Moa, and not of the Dinornis that was meant. But unless the Maoris saw the Dinornis alive, how did they know that the bones they found strewing the earth were the bones of a bird? The largest form of land-animal life with which they were familiar on their arrival here was that of a bird which they called a Moa. Probably they found many skeletons of the Dinornis lying in such positions as clearly to indicate its form when alive. Being careful observers of nature, they would note the resemblance between the skeletons they found here and the skeletons of the Moa with which they were acquainted in the islands, and would at once conclude that they were identical, and call them by the same name. Against the theory of the antiquity of moa remains, it is urged that the bones which were everywhere found in good preservation twenty years ago, have entirely disappeared since then. How, it is asked, could those bones have remained in exposed situations for hundreds of years before the advent of Europeans, when so short a period has sufficed, since their arrival, to destroy all traces of them in localities where they were so plentiful? I think the efforts of the Maoris to preserve, and the efforts of the Europeans to destroy, the rank vegetation of the country, account for the preservation in one case, and the subsequent destruction in the other, of the moa remains. Ever since the peopling of these islands by Maoris, the natural vegetation has been protected as far as possible from destruction. The grass of the Canterbury plains afforded cover for the Kiore, native rat, which was caught in immense numbers, being highly esteemed for food. If the Maoris have inhabited these islands for five hundred years, then during that period they preserved, as far as possible, the vegetation of the plains, the decaying leaves of which would each year add to the thick covering overlying the moa remains, and which, being impervious to wet, would preserve them from the destructive action of the atmosphere. On the occupation of the country by Europeans, the vegetation was burnt, the covering removed, and the bones exposed; and successive fires, coupled with atmospheric influences,
have now destroyed all traces of them. So far, I think the evidence is against the theory of the recent destruction of the Moa, but the rejection of that theory does not involve the acceptance of the other, which refers the extinction of the Moa to a period immeasurably distant.