Art. IX.—Notes on Maori Traditions of the Moa.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 8th August, 1874.]
In 1844, at Wellington, I was present, as Governor Fitzroy's private secretary, at a conversation held with a very old Maori, who asserted that he had seen Captain Cook. Major Richmond, then the Superintendent of Wellington, or rather of the Southern Districts of New Zealand, was, I think, also present. I cannot recollect who was the Governor's interpreter. This Maori, * so far as my memory now serves me, I should guess was 70 years old, at all events he was brought forward as one of the oldest of his people then residing about Port Nicholson. Being asked had he ever seen a Moa, he replied, “yes, he had seen the last one that had been heard of.” When questioned as to what it was like, he described it as a very large, tall, bird, with a neck like a horse's neck; at the same time he made a long upward stroke in the air with his right hand, raising it far above his head, and so as to suggest a very fair idea of the shape of a Moa's neck and head, such as I have since seen them in the skeleton birds of the magnificent collection which Dr. Julius Haast has gathered together in the Canterbury Museum.
There is no bird or animal of large size indigenous to New Zealand to which the old Maori could liken the Moa. The horse was probably the only creature imported by us in 1844, in which he could possibly find any kind of likeness calculated to give us a fair general idea of the shape and height of the bird's neck and head. Possibly the old man did not speak the exact truth. But, if he had never himself seen a Moa, how—unless he had received its description handed down from Maoris who had seen one—could he possibly have hit upon such an idea as to refer us to the tall arched neck of the horse for a likeness? The gesture which he made with his hand remains impressed upon my memory as freshly as if seen only yesterday, as one that was singularly descriptive. It was like a sketch being made, as it were, in the air. Had the Maoris been noted for their curiosity respecting fossils or old bones lying about the country, one might surmise that the tolerably perfect skeleton of the bird may at times have been noticed by them on the surface. But, to this day, I have never heard of any Maori taking the trouble to lay bare any Moa skeleton partly or entirely covered up.
In 1844, and for many years later, it was believed by our people for a certainty that the Moa was still to be found alive in the South Island, of which very little was then known, otherwise Governor Fitzroy, who was fond of natural science, would, I am sure, have questioned the old Maori minutely and at length on the subject. In those days the names of one or two old sealers, who in the south, about Otago and Foveaux Strait, had, it was said, actually
[Footnote] * Haumatangi.—Ed.
eaten Moa-flesh, were to my knowledge currently mentioned. One of these sealers was named Meurant. He was well known about Otago.
In 1844 little was known among the European population of the existence of Moa-bones, and very few had as yet been found. But the Maoris always knew them when they saw them. It is a curious fact to note that they should have a name for the extinct bird's bones if it had never been known to their ancestors as a living bird. I never heard a Maori give a name to any fossil, a shell for instance, and they always used to ridicule our exploring parties for carrying about useless stones, when fossils were collected by us.
In 1850 H.M. steam surveying ship “Acheron” arrived at Port Cooper, now Port Lyttelton. Captain Frederick J. O. Evans, one of the surveying officers, then master of the ship and now Hydrographer to the Admiralty, discovered, a mile above Sumner, on the Heathcote and Avon estuary, a cave which he called Moa-bone Cave. The name is well known now in Canterbury. From this cave he carried on board the “Acheron” a large number of Moa-bones. But with them were some few other bones, about which neither Dr. Lyall nor Dr. Forbes, the ship's surgeons (engaged also respectively as botanist and geologist) could make up their minds. On my return to the “Acheron,” from an expedition inland to the Hurunui, the bones were shown to my Maori guide and travelling companion, Hone Paratene, (John Patterson) lately a Member of the House of Representatives. As they were being handed to him one by one he pronounced them unhesitatingly to be Moa-bones. Presently he stopped at one which had puzzled the doctors. He said he was “ruru-raru” (puzzled, confused or doubtful) about them. At last, after some time spent in examining and thinking and turning it over, he said it was a seal's bone. The two doctors then at once recognised it as such. It is remarkable that, as the rest of the bones were handed to him, Hone only hesitated at those about which the doctors had also been doubtful.
In 1849, when exploring inland between Jacobs River, Tuturau, and the Molyneux, I engaged, either from the Bluff or the Maori pah, at the eastern entrance of New River (Oreti), a Maori named Wera or Whera. He told me that in olden times, i.e., before his day, they used to drive a stout post into the ground above the entrance of a cave and to hang from it a rope with a slipknot. By this the Moa would be caught when passing into or out of the cave. If not absolutely true, the statement is at least curious from its coinciding with the fact that it is so common to find quantities of Moa-bones in caves.
Mr. William Guise Brittan, the Commissioner of Crown Lands, states that when he arrived in 1850 with the first Canterbury settlers, one of the Rapaki Maoris told him that before he, the informant, was born his father had hunted the Moa. Should I hereafter recall to mind any other particulars I may have heard formerly respecting the Moa, you shall have them.