Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 4, 1871
This text is also available in PDF
(2 MB) Opens in new window
– 110 –

Art. VI.—On Recent Moa Remains in New Zealand.

(With Illustrations.)

[Read before the Otago Institute, 16th September, 1871.]

It will be in the recollection of some members of this Society that in January, 1864, a remarkably perfect specimen of the Moa was found near Tiger Hill, on the Manuherikia Plains, in the interior of the province of Otago, and that it was transmitted to the Museum at York. Before the bones were packed for Europe, I was afforded an opportunity of examining and figuring them, and a photograph of the restored skeleton is in the Otago Museum. They afterwards formed the subject of a memoir by Professor Owen in the “Transactions of the Zoological Society” for 1869, who identified the species as Dinornis robustus.

These remains were chiefly remarkable on account of the well-preserved condition of some parts of the skeleton, portions of the ligaments, skin, and feathers, being still attached to some of the bones; whereas moa bones, in the condition in which they are usually found, are to some extent fossilized, or at least have undergone sufficient chemical change to deprive them not only of all ligamentous appendages, but to some extent of their original proportion of organic matter.

The discovery in the following year of a Moa's egg, containing the bones of an embryo chick, in a road cutting at Cromwell, was recorded by me in 1867. (“Zoological Transactions,” London.) This egg was found imbedded in sand two feet below the surface, and was unfortunately broken by the workmen who extracted it, so that many fragments were lost. Those which remain have, however, been fitted together, and give the form of more than one half of the egg, which appears to have had the following dimensions:— Long diameter, 8.9 inches; short diameter, 6.1 inches. A model of this egg, which I have lately prepared, will be found in the Otago Museum, together with a model of the great egg which was obtained by Mr. Fife at the Kaikouras, and another that was found by Mr. Mantell near Oamaru in 1849. The texture of the shell of the Cromwell egg is soft and chalky, having, no doubt, been corroded by solvents contained in the soil. In order to ascertain

– 111 –

the probable extent of change to which the egg-shell has been subjected in this manner, a fragment was analysed and proved to contain only .9 per cent of organic matter, while the egg-shell of the Emu contains as much as 7.89 per cent., from which we may infer that the shell of the Moa egg had been almost wholly deprived of its animal matter.

I happen to have in the Museum an egg of the Emu, also containing the bones of a chick which had reached about the same stage of development, so that I was able to institute some very interesting comparisons. The principal difference in the outward appearance of the bones is, that while the Moa chick bones are of a light brown colour, spongy texture, and adhere to the tongue like baked clay, the Emu chick bones have a dense brittle structure, white colour, and smooth surface that is not porous. The most remarkable feature, however, is the enormous disproportion in the bones of the extremities, while there is very little difference in size between the crania and total relative height. Thus the length of the Moa chick may be estimated at 14.5 inches, and that of the Emu chick at 13 inches; and the weight of the bones of the limbs and pelvis in the Moa is 167 grains, while in the Emu chick it is only 40.5 grains, or in the proportion of four to one. I compared the specific gravity of the bones for the purpose of determining roughly the extent to which those of the Moa chick had been fossilized, and obtained the following results:—

[The section below cannot be correctly rendered as it contains complex formatting. See the image of the page for a more accurate rendering.]

Moa chick sp. gr. of bone 1.538
Emu chick 1.577
Ordinary moa bone 1.700 to 1.979

We thus find that no marked change had taken place in the density of the bones of the chick, the shell having, no doubt, protected them from the action of the soil. Plate VI., figs. 1 to 4, shows the relative size of the Moa and Emu eggs and chicks reduced to one-third natural size.

I have now to describe another remarkable specimen from the same district, being the cervical vertebrœ of a Moa, apparently of the largest size, upon the posterior aspect of which the skin, partly covered with feathers, is still attached by the shrivelled muscles and ligaments.

The specimen in question belongs to Dr. Thomson, of Clyde, who obtained it from a gold-miner, and kindly forwarded it to me for description. It was discovered in a cave, or under an overhanging mass of mica schist—the locality being thus described by Dr. Thomson, who has since visited it:—

“The cave in question lies at the foot of the Obelisk range of hills, and about four miles from its summit. I am unable to give you its proper geographical position, as we had no compass with us. It is situated at the back of a large rock, which stands about seventy feet high from the ground, and to me it appears to be more a rent and crumbling away of the sides of rocks round about. There are two openings, one of which is immediately

– 112 –

opposite Alexandra, the other towards the Obelisk; the former is a steep incline, the other exactly like a funnel, and is in the centre of a flat about a quarter of an acre in extent, while the former is surrounded by rocks. The descent into the cave, which is accomplished by sliding down feet foremost, is by the former opening—by the other opening the descent is difficult; the two openings communicate with each other. On entering what may be termed as the first or upper floor, you have to be in a bent position. This floor is composed of loose dirt, pieces of wood, and other rubbish, and a few bones, and is bounded on all sides by rocks; and it is here that the separation of the rock is most apparent, and the fracture can be easily traced on all sides. Below this is another floor, to enter which you have to go on your face and slide under a piece of rock about ten feet long, there being just sufficient room to pass through, and the descent is also an incline. In this compartment, where you are altogether unable to stand, stooping, or rather kneeling and sitting, being the only positions that can be assumed, are found all the bones, lodged against the side of the rock (towards the south). The position may be described as that assumed by a ship when lying well over on her side. Below this floor are others, which become rocky as you descend, and in which are observed other rents. The entire depth of the cave from the surface is at least from forty to fifty feet. I have been so far minute in describing the place in order to give you some idea of how the bones found got there. I may mention that in the third floor the height is at least ten feet, so that there is plenty of room for standing erect.

“At our visit, and on entering the first floor, our attention was attracted to the remains of a fire. We found numerous charred bones, both moa bones and sheep bones, pieces of wood, and spear grass. No bones worthy of note were obtained here, but on entering the second floor, and by scraping away the loose dirt to a depth of two feet, we came upon numerous bones—femora, tibiœ, fibulœ, ribs, vertebrœ, tracheal rings, and œsophageal rings, and pieces of skin and muscle, also bones of the toes and tarsal bones, and a portion of a pelvis. In the third storey we found pieces of egg-shell and the bones of some kind of flying bird (the keel on the breast-bone indicating the kind of bird).

“Our visit was paid rather late in the day, and as it began to rain and snow alternately we had to leave. Since then other people have been into the cave, and one man found a perfect head with lower jaw and tracheal rings attached; these were found lying whole. They also found a large lower jaw. The latter I have now in my possession, but the former the finder would not part with.

“On one of the thigh bones portions of muscular tissue are observed, in pretty good preservation, and found at the same spot where the portion of neck was found.

– 113 –

“I have been able to make out pretty distinctly the remains of eight birds, there having been found sixteen tibiœ, of course not all complete. I have referred to the remains of a fire in the cave; a great many pieces of charred bones were found in the first floor, chiefly of the femur; in the second floor a number of claws were found, and these were nearly all charred, and of all the leg bones only two were found slightly charred. Two tibiœ are evidently those of a young bird, as the ends are undeveloped, also a portion of pelvis evidently belonging to the same bird; these bones are thin and soft, much more so than any yet found either in that cave or elsewhere.

“My impression is that the flat ground round about the opening opposite the mountain was the camping ground of the birds, and, having been killed either on the flat or higher up the hill, their remains were washed down into the cave and deposited on the side of the cave above alluded to, for it is impossible to imagine how such gigantic birds could have found their way into the cave, unless, indeed, the openings were at some anterior period larger, and have since become closed by an earthquake or by the settling down of the huge rock. The idea of a landslip is negatived by the presence of the rocks and the entire flatness of the ground round about. They may, however, have been killed and then roasted in the cave, but it is difficult to say, especially as no implements have been found in or near the vicinity of the cave.

“Of the portions of egg-shells found, it may be stated that these were, along with the remains of the winged birds, found at the lowest and deepest part of the cave, in small crevices of the rock. In my opinion the only possible way of arriving at any positive conclusion as to how the bones got into the cave is a thorough examination of the country lying above the place, in order to see if any slip had ever occurred. I am inclined to think that they have been washed down, as a quantity of sheep manure and pieces of wood are scattered about the place, and such marks as are left after a place has been flooded are distinctly seen.”

“I have again visited the cave, and still adhere to my former impressions. At this visit only a few claws were got, and a few tracheal rings and vertebrœ.

“At another place (Butcher's Gully) bones have been found; a tibia; thirty-two inches long, has been got, which I have in my possession. Other bones have been found, and are to be sent in to me, and it is my intention to pay a visit to this place, about which I shall inform you if you think it necessary.

“Along with this I forward you a few feathers found half-way between Alexandra and Roxburgh.* They were found by a miner, eighteen feet below the surface of the ground, while sluicing. Perhaps you have already in your possession feathers, but these may not be unacceptable, and tend to show

[Footnote] * Described by Captain Hutton, see post.

– 114 –

that the Moa was largely distributed over this part of the island, and has but recently become extinct.”*

The total length of Dr. Thomson's specimen is 16.5 inches, and includes the first dorsal and last six cervical vertebrœ, with the integument and shrivelled tissues enveloping them on the left side.

The surfaces of the bones on the right side, where not covered by the integument, are quite free from all membrane and other tissues, but are quite perfect, and in good preservation, without being in the least degree mineralized.

The margin of the fragment of skin is sharply defined along the dorsal edge, but elsewhere it is soft, easily pulverized, and passing into adipocere.

The circumference of the neck of the bird, at the upper part of the specimen, appears to have been about eighteen inches, and the thickness of the skin about three-sixteenths of an inch.

The only indication of the matrix in which it had been imbedded, was a fine micaceous sand that covered every part of the specimen like dust, there being no clay or other adherent matrix. On removing the sand with a soft brush from the skin, it was discovered to be of a dirty red-brown colour, and to form deep transverse folds, especially towards the upper part. The surface is roughened by elevated conical papillœ, from the apex of some of which springs a slender transparent feather-barrel, never longer than half an inch. On the dorsal surface a few of the quills still carry fragments of the webs, some being two inches in length. From this it appears that the colour of the barbs was chestnut red, like Apteryx Australis, but that they had two equal plumes to each barrel, as in the Emu and Cassowary; and in that respect differed from the Apteryx, the feathers of which have not any after-plume. On the other hand, the barbs of the webs of the feathers do not seem to have been soft and downy towards the base as in the Emu. From the direction of the stumps of the feathers it is evident that the portion of the neck which has been preserved is that contained within the trunk of the body, and which, in the natural position, has a downward slope, the cervical end of the spine being where the upward sweep of the neck of the bird commenced, which accounts for the absence of the trachea with its hard bony rings, no trace of which was

[Footnote] * Writing to me on 18th October, 1871, of some moa remains found in the same district, Mr. W. A. Low says:—“I have obtained a well-preserved piece of the bird's flesh, with portions of down and numerous feather-barrels observable on the outer surface. The flesh is not the least fossilized, simply well dried, and can be easily separated into fibres. You remember what quantities of rats used to infest this part of the country eight or nine years ago; they were legion, and I am astonished that this fragment should have escaped their ravages—perhaps on purpose that it might ultimately come into your hands, and enable you to settle the vexed question of the period of the existence of these gigantic birds, which once roamed in such immense numbers in this old lacustrine region.”

Picture icon

Neck of Moa

– 115 –

found among the soft parts which have been preserved. The integument was easily removed on dividing the few threads of dried tissue by which it was attached. The shrivelled up soft parts thus displayed could not be clearly distinguished, but may be guessed as follows:— 1st. A strong band of ligamentous tissue, connecting the spinous processes. 2nd. Intervertebral muscles and ligaments. 3rd. A sheath diverging from the lower part of the spine. The only bone present besides the vertebrœ was attached to this sheath by its tip, the other extremity having been articulated to the first dorsal, as shown in the accompanying drawing, P1. V. fig. d. Fig. a is the side view, showing the integument. Fig. b is the dorsal aspect, showing the portions of the vertebrœ, which are covered and uncovered. Fig. c is a view of the soft parts after the removal of the skin.

The above interesting discoveries render it probable that the inland district of Otago, at a time when its grassy plains and rolling hills were covered with a dense scrubby vegetation or a light forest growth, was where the giant wingless birds of New Zealand lingered to latest times. It is impossible to convey an idea of the profusion of bones which, only a few years ago, were found in this district, scattered on the surface of the ground, or buried in the alluvial soil in the neighbourhood of streams and rivers. At the present time this area of country is particularly arid as compared with the prevalent character of New Zealand. It is perfectly treeless—nothing but the smallest-sized shrubs being found within a distance of sixty or seventy miles. The surface features comprise round-backed ranges of hills of schistoze rock with swamps on the top, deeply cut by ravines that open out on basin-shaped plains formed of alluvial deposits that have been everywhere moulded into beautifully regular terraces, to an altitude of 1,700 feet above the sea-level. That the mountain slopes were at one time covered with forest, the stumps and prostrate trunks of large trees, and the mounds and pits on the surface of the ground which mark old forest land, abundantly testify, although it is probable that the intervening plains have never supported more than a dense thicket of shrubs, or were partly occupied by swamps. The greatest number of moa bones were found where rivers debouch on the plains—and that at a comparatively late period these plains were the hunting-grounds of the aborigines, can be proved almost incontestably. Under some overhanging rocks in the neighbourhood of the Clutha river, at a place named by the first explorers “Moa Flat,” from the abundance of bones which lay strewn on the surface, rude stone flakes of a kind of stone not occurring in that district, were found by me in 1862 associated with heaps of moa bones. Forty miles further in the interior, and at the same place where the Moa's neck was recently obtained, Captain Fraser, in 1864, discovered what he described to me as a manufactory for such flakes and knives of chert as could be used as rough cutting instruments, in a cave formed by over-

– 116 –

hanging rocks, sheltered only from south-west storms, as if an accumulation by a storm-stayed party of natives. With these were also associated moa bones, and other remains. Again, on the top of the Carrick mountains, which are in the same district, but at an altitude of 5,000 feet above the sea, the same gentleman discovered a gully, in which were numerous heaps of bones, and along with them native implements of stone, among which was a well-finished cleaver of blue slate, Pl. VII. fig. 5, and also a coarsely-made hornstone cleaver, the latter of a material that must have been brought from a very great distance.

Still clearer evidence that in very recent times the natives travelled through the interior, probably following the Moa as a means of subsistence, like natives in the countries where large game abounds, was obtained in 1865–6, by Messrs. J. and W. Murison. At the Maniototo plains bones of several species of Dinornis, Aptornis, Apteryx, large Rails, Stringops, and other birds are exceedingly abundant in the alluvium of a particular stream, so much so that they are turned up by the plough with facility. Attention was arrested by the occurrence on the high ground terrace which bounds the valley of this stream, of circular heaps composed of flakes and chips of chert of a description that occurs only in large blocks along the base of the mountains at about a mile distant. This chert is a very peculiar rock, being a “cemented water quartz,” or sandy gravel converted into a hard quartzite, by infiltration of silicious matter. The resemblance of the flakes to those they had seen described as found in the ancient kitchen-middens, and a desire to account for the great profusion of moa bones on a lower terrace shelf nearer the margin of the stream, led the Messrs. Murison to explore the ground carefully, and by excavating in likely spots they found a series of circular pits partly lined with stones, and containing, intermixed with charcoal, abundance of moa bones and egg-shells, together with bones of the dog, the egg-shells being in such quantities that they consider that hundreds of eggs must have been cooked in each hole. Along with these were stone implements of various kinds (reduced to one-third natural size in Pl. VII., figs. 1 to 4), and of several other varieties of rock besides the chert which lies on the surface. The form and contents of these cooking ovens correspond exactly with those described by Mantell in 1847, as occurring on the sea coast; and among the stone implements which Mantell found in them, he remembers some to have been of the same chert which occurs in situ at this locality, fifty miles in the interior. The greater number of these chert specimens found on the coast are with the rest of the collection in the British Museum. There is another circumstance which incidentally supports the view that while the Moas still existed in great numbers, the country was open and regularly traversed by the natives engaged in hunting. Near the old Maori ovens on the coast, Mantell discovered a very curious dish made of steatite, a mineral occurring in New Zealand only on the

Picture icon

To accompany Paper by Dr Hector.

– 117 –

West Coast, rudely carved on the back in the Maori fashion, and measuring twelve by eight inches and very shallow. The natives at the time recognised this dish by tradition, and said there were two of them. It is very remarkable that since then the fellow dish has been discovered by some gold-diggers in the Manuherikia plain, and was used on a hotel counter at the Dunstan township as a matchbox, till it was sent to England, and, as I am informed, placed in a public museum in Liverpool.

The manner in which the Maoris use their cooking ovens suggested to me an explanation of the mode in which these flakes of chert came to be found in such profusion, while only a few of them show any sign of having been trimmed in order to fit them for implements. The native method of cooking is to heat the hardest stones procurable in the fire, and then placing the food to be cooked on top, to cover the whole with green leaves and earth, and through an opening pour in water, which, coming in contact with the hot stones, causes the formation of steam by which the food is cooked. If masses of the white chert be heated and quenched with water in this manner, the result is the formation of flakes of every variety of shape with sharp-cutting edges. It is natural to suppose that when of these flakes was found to be of a shape convenient for a particular purpose, such as a knife, cleaver, or spear-head, it was trimmed and dressed somewhat in the manner of a gun-flint when the edge became defective, rather than cast away, and favourite forms might be preserved and carried even as far as the coast.

This suggested explanation of how a race, advanced probably far beyond the so-called period of such rude implements, might yet find it convenient to manufacture and use them, is supported by the circunistance that along with the trimmed chert flakes the Messrs. Murison found polished adzes of aphanite, and even jade, which shows that the hunting natives had, in addition to the flake knives, the same implements as those which are so common among the natives at the present day, though their use is now superseded by iron.

In the ovens on the coast, besides flakes and rough knives of chert and flint, are found flake knives of obsidian, a rock which only occurs in the volcanic district of the North Island, and also adzes and stone axes of every degree of finish and variety of material. Although there is no positive evidence in the latter case that more highly finished implements were in use by a people co-temporaneous with the Moa, whose remains, collected by human agency, are so abundant in the same place, nevertheless the fact of a similar association occurring far in the interior, affords strong presumptive evidence on this point, as the finely finished implements must have been carried inland, and to the same spots where the moa remains occur, to be used at native feasts, of which these bones are the only other existing evidences.

So far I have been dealing with evidence gathered in the South Island of

– 118 –

the recent co-existence of Man and the Moa, but in the North Island there is no lack of similar proofs. During the summer of 1866 His Excellency Sir George Grey made a fine collection at Waingongoro, on the West Coast of this island, being the same locality in which Mantell gathered the magnificent series of bones which he forwarded to Europe in 1847. At this place, along with the bones of the Moa and other extinct birds, were found those of dogs, seals, and many species of birds that are common at the present day, such as the Albatross, Penguin, Nestor, Porphyrio, and notably the Notornis, a gigantic Rail, which, till a comparatively recent date, was supposed to be, like the Moa, extinct, and of which as yet only two living examples have been obtained. Associated with these remains Sir George Grey obtained artificially-formed stone flakes of a very peculiar kind, being chips from rolled boulders of hard crystalline sandstone, produced by a single blow—probably when the stone was heated and quenched in water. (Pl. VII., fig. 6, also similar flakes found by Dr. Haast, Pl. IV.) The stones from which these chips were obtained had evidently been used in the first instance for cooking—as ancient umus or cooking ovens are chiefly formed of them; and, indeed, in many localities in sandy tracts on the West Coast where stones are rare, the identical stones that in former days were used for cooking Moas are still in use by the natives of the district for cooking pigs and shell-fish. Here, again, we find that the same necessity and circumstance that suggested the use of the chert flakes in the south, apparently gave origin to a similar adaptation of the chips from the sandstone boulders. It is of some interest to find that native tradition points to Waingongoro as the spot where the first Maori immigrants originally settled, and there appears to be nothing in the abundant traces which they have left of the great feasts which we must refer to this period that would indicate any difference in their domestic habits from those of the Maoris now existing, and who no doubt are their direct descendants. What has been advanced affords evidence that the Moas, although belonging probably to a race that was expiring from natural causes, were finally exterminated through human agency; and on this subject Mr. W. D. Murison has suggested how infallibly the wholesale consumption of the eggs, which were evidently highly prized as an article of food, must have led to their rapid extinction, without it being necessary that the birds themselves should be actually destroyed. That wide-spreading fires contributed in some instances to the destruction of these wingless birds, is rendered probable from the occurrence of little heaps of bones in spots where flocks of them would be overtaken when fleeing before the destroying element. At the south-west extremity of a triangular plain by the side of the Wakatipu Lake, in 1862, I counted thirty-seven of such distinct skeleton heaps, where the steep rocky slope of the mountains, covered with fallen blocks and tangled shrubs, meets the lake, and would therefore stop

– 119 –

the progress of the fugitives in this direction. From what we know of the habits of birds akin to the Moa, we may fairly infer that they did not frequent heavily-timbered country, but roamed over the grass-covered plains and mountain slopes. This view is supported by the comparative rarity of moa remains in forests, the few exceptions being easily accounted for.

The whole of the eastern district of the South Island of New Zealand back to the Southern Alps, was completely surveyed and mapped as early as 1862, and had been thoroughly explored at least ten years before that date, without any of these gigantic birds being met with; but there is a large area of rugged mountainous country, especially in the south-west district of Otago, that even to the present time is only imperfectly known. The mountain sides in this region are covered with open fagus forest, in which Kiwis, Kakapos, and other expiring forms of apterous birds, are still to be found in comparative abundance, but where we could scarcely expect to meet with the larger species. Nevertheless, owing to the peculiar configuration of this country, the mountains afford very extensive areas, above the forest limit, which are covered with alpine shrubs and grasses, where it is not impossible that a remnant of this giant race may have remained to very recent times. The exploration, however, to which the country has been subjected during the last few years, by parties of diggers prospecting for gold, forbids the hope that any still exist. I may here mention that on one of the flat-topped mountains, near Jackson's Bay, which I visited in January, 1863, I observed, at an altitude of 4,000 feet, numerous well-beaten tracks, about sixteen inches wide, intersecting the dense scrub in all directions, and which, owing to the height of the scrub, could only have been formed in the first instance by the frequent passage of a much larger bird than either the Kiwi or Kakapo, which, judging from the droppings, were the only birds that now resorted to them. On the sides of the tracks, especially near the upper confines of the forest, are shallow excavations, two or three feet in diameter, that have much the appearance of having been scraped for nests. No pigs or any other introduced animal having penetrated to this part of the country, it appears manifest that these are the tracks of some large indigenous animal, but, from the nature of the vegetation, it is probable that such tracks may have been for a very long period in disuse, except by the smaller ground birds, without becoming obliterated.

The above facts and arguments in support of the view that the Moa survived to very recent times are similar to those advanced, at a very early period after the settlement of the colony, by Walter Mantell, who had the advantage of direct information on the subject from a generation of natives that has passed away. As the first explorer of the artificial moa beds, his opinion is entitled to great weight. Similar conclusions were also drawn by Buller, who is personally familiar with the facts described in the North Island, in an article

– 120 –

that appeared in the “Zoologist” for 1864. The fresh discovery, therefore, of well-preserved remains of the Moa only tends to confirm and establish this view, and it would have been unnecessary to enlarge on the subject by the publication of the foregoing notes, which were long since written, but for the dissimilar conclusions arrived at by Dr. Haast, in a recent address to the Canterbury Institute, which, from the large amount of interesting and novel matter it contains, will doubtless have a wide circulation. (See p. 66 et seq.)