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Volume 9, 1876
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Art. XX.—On the Remains of a Dog found by Capt. Rowan near White Cliffs, Taranaki.

[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 9th December, 1876.]

The universal spread of the dog throughout all parts of the world that have at any time been inhabited by man is one of the most interesting facts in the natural history of our race. From the earliest times man has made the dog his companion and servant, and as a consequence of this long continued culture and control, the qualities and capabilities of the dog have been developed not only in an extraordinary degree, as compared with any other animal, but also in a most diverse manner, the diversity depending to some extent on the habits and necessities of the section of the human race that developed the breed.

The remains of dogs are of frequent occurrence among the bones found in the old Maori umus, and the statement by Captain Cook, as well as the explicit traditions of the Natives, and even the reports of early settlers, prove that the Maori had a domesticated dog before the arrival of the white race.

A few dogs reported to be of this primitive breed were known within the last 20 years, and are said to have beeen remarkable for their docility and sagacity. Whether there was also a distinct breed of wild dog in New Zealand is not stated in any work I have been able to refer to, but it is

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improbable that the same dogs were both highly prized domestic pets and also used for food. Among the Sandwich Islanders the dog, was up to late years, carefully fed and fattened for food, the best quality, called iliopi being fed on taro, and when young suckled by the women at the expense of their infants. But these dogs were not petted or treated as intelligent companions, or prized for their sagacity, as I understand the Maori dogs were.

Any information respecting this extinct breed of Maori dogs has therefore an ethnological value, and I have this evening to bring before the society an interesting contribution on the subject by Captain Rowan. Before describing his discovery, which relates to probably the earliest remains of the dog yet found in New Zealand, I will shortly refer to the only specimens, supposed to be genuine, of this breed which I have been able to examine, and which were probably among the last survivors of the race.

A bitch and full-grown pup were known for several years in the densely wooded country between Waikava and the Mataura plains, and did great damage among the flocks of sheep, but exhibited such cunning and daring that it was not till after hunting them for two years that they were shot by Mr. Anderson, who presented them to the Colonial Museum. Of the smaller specimen both skin and skeleton were taken to the British Museum by Sir George Grey, and the skin of the mother was preserved here, and has been recognized by many old Maoris as a genuine kuri or ancient Maori dog.

In general appearance it resembles a poodle, but it presents characters unlike any other of the many breeds of dogs with which we are familiar.

It is a large bodied dog with slender limbs, large ears, and a straight half-brushed tail, wide head, and small pointed nose. Its colour is white, with a black spot on the loins, and a brown spot on the crown of the head, and a few faint spots on the ears. Its nose is black and its claws are white.

The back is covered with hair about one and a quarter inch in length, laid smoothly, but the lower surface of the tail, rump, back, legs and ears, and the belly have long rough hair. The total length is three feet.

The height of the shoulder is seventeen inches, the height of the foreleg being ten inches, and the depth of the chest ten inches; the ears are four inches, and the tail is thirteen inches long.

The skull, which is the only part of the skeleton preserved, proves it to have been a very old individual, the canines being worn down to their stumps, and the processes and ridges of the cranium strongly developed. On this account it is perhaps all the more valuable for comparison with the skull found by Captain Rowan, which belonged to a young individual, as it

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discloses any points of similarity that are maintained at all periods of growth.

For further comparison I am enabled also to show two dog skulls found by Mr. Travers among the remains of a cannibal feast he discovered on the east side of Wellington Harbour, and of which he has already given an account to the Society. There is no evidence of these skulls, being of ancient date, but they are clearly of the same breed as the true Maori dog.

Captain Rowan's discovery I will give in his own words:—

“I send you some bones, which I think, from the teeth and the skull, are the remains of a dog. I have failed to suggest to myself any possible means by which they could have attained the position where found, except by the animal having crept in of itself and died there; or by its having been washed in by the stream which appears to have at one time run on the gravel bed overlying the marlstone. It has been suggested that, as the spot is much frequented at times by Maoris for fishing, one of them may have killed a dog, and stuck its body into the hollow tree. Putting aside the improbability of a Native taking the trouble to bury a dog, with the sea close at hand to throw it into, and the absence of any Native account to corroborate this idea, I think the following facts worth attention:—

“The different strata above the marlstone are continually receding owing to the action of the weather; consequently, a few years ago what is now the face of the cliff was then hidden, and it is only since the last slip took place that the portion of the trunk containing the bones became exposed.

“When found, the palate was tightly impacted with dead wood, which I had to remove with a knife, so as to be able to see clearly the number and shape of the upper jaw teeth. It therefore seems to me that the animal must have become a skeleton before the wood had decayed. Also, I think it would have been quite impossible for a human being to have choked up the orifice of the tree with river sand in the manner in which I found it: the sand had every appearance of being drifted in by running water.

“Supposing for an instant that the remains are those of a dog which lived at a time when stratum No. 6 in the accompanying section was the bed of a river; would it not be natural for that dog to have had his lair in a hollow tree and near to water? Would it not be natural for a dog, when feeling the approach of death, to crawl into his lair and to die there? And if so, what more likely than that the tree, by a landslip, or a flood, should ultimately lie water-logged at the river bottom? Or, the slip might have occurred while the dog was alive, but asleep, and unable to escape;

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in which case he would naturally be drowned. The flax fibre, too, would be a very natural substance for a dog to drag in to make a warm, comfortable bed of.

“I am only putting forward such suggestions as occur to me. Of course, if any reasonable means can be shown by which the bones might have been artificially deposited in the tree; or, if it is certain that, at the period when the tree was deposited in its present position, no Phormium existed, my suppositions would be unjustifiable.

“It was during last winter that two of Captain Good's sons, having gone down, as they frequently did, to this place to fish, first noticed what seemed a bit of bone projecting from the sand. In all probability the winter rains had shortly before caused a slip, the remains of which are still visible, and so exposed this fragment. The boys, with a bit of stick, dug out the upper portion of the skull, and took it home as a curiosity, neither thinking of searching any further, nor noticing that the sand was only the core of a hollow tree. It was some six weeks or two months afterwards that I first saw the skull: and, after hearing how and where it had been found, took the first opportunity at my disposal of visiting the spot to make further search. No mention of the discovery had been made to any one, except myself, outside of Captain Good's own family, and no one had apparently, or as far as I could ascertain, visited the spot since the boys' discovery of the skull. Indeed, the one who accompanied me was in some little doubt as to the exact spot, when we first reached the ledge of blue marlstone known as the ‘fishing rock.’ In order that I might have the benefit of other judgment besides my own, Mrs. Good and Captain Messenger were kind enough to accompany me, and I had also an Armed Constabulary man, carrying some tools.

“The skull had been found—so the boys told—lying teeth uppermost; and I could see traces of the slight excavation they had made in extracting it. As soon as we began to remove the sand, we found we were working into the hollow of a tree, and almost immediately found the two lower jaw bones; and slightly further in, the other bones, and the matted hair; further still, the flax-stick and fibre.

“We excavated as far as we safely could—about six feet in,—and cut the tree off, without finding any more animal remains. Although the orifice was becoming much smaller, the tree still continued hollow, and I shoved my arm and a flax-stick in, without resistance, for about nine feet further.

“I think I have now told you all the facts, and I shall be glad to hear what conclusion you come to as to the bones and their probable origin.

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Picture icon

Section of the Cliff, showing the Position of the Tree which contained the Dog's Skeleton.

“This sketch is intended to show the stratification of the face of the cliff in which is imbedded the hollow tree (A), in which were found the remains herewith, at a depth of nineteen feet two inches from the surface.

“The situation is on Captain Good's farm, and about half a mile on the town side of the Urenui river. As may be seen, the tree lies in the surface of the sixth distinct stratum from the ground level. It is hollow and the bones, hair, etc., now exhibited, were found in the hollow and closely imbedded in sand, clay, and decayed wood. The flax stick and flax fibre were rather further in than the bones themselves, and the log continues hollow into the cliff for more than twelve feet.”

From the evidence adduced in the foregoing remarks it is not very clear to my mind that the dog may not have been buried in the hole made by the hollow tree imbedded in the cliff; or may it not have crawled into it from the top of the landslip that has since come away, but which may formerly have been on a level with the tree as shown in the section. The lignite-bearing beds along the top of the cliff, north of Taranaki, though belonging to a very late geological period, are, nevertheless, of great antiquity, and the state of preservation of the bones; as compared with the thorough alteration that the vegetable matter of the lignite has undergone, inclines me to believe that the dog remains are of modern origin.

But even in that case, the circumstances under which they have been found, and the decayed state of the dentine layer of the teeth tend to refer them to a period further back than any previously obtained.

The comparison of the skull with the other specimens is, therefore, interesting, and shows that in all the specimens of the Maori dog now before us, there is evidence that they belong to one common breed, which has been even more specialized from the wild dog—such as the dingo—than any of our most intelligent and finest-bred domesticated dogs.

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Measurements of Remains of the Dog found by Captain Rowan.
Total length 5.5
Zygomatic breadth 3.6
Palate, length 2.7
", post. nares to ant. palat. foramen 1.9
", width at the canines 0.75
", " ant. edge of 3rd præ.-molar 1.0
", " post. edge 4th præ 1.7
" of cranium at front parietal suture 1.7
" " post orbital process 1.7
" middle parietal 2.2
Mesial Sutures
Supra occipital 8
Inter-parietal .15
Parietal-" .75
Frontal-" 1.6
Nasal-" 1.8

Post orbital ridge very slightly elevated and continued back. No parietal crest. Supra-occipital crest, feeble.

Lower Jaw—
Height 4.0
Greatest depth under first molar .65
Length of condyle .6
Height of coronoid process 1.2
Other bones—Altas and part of a humerus.
Comparative Measurements of Various Dog Skulls.
Post Frontal Width. Palatal Width.
Inches. Inches.
Dingo 4 ⅓ 2
Old Maori dog 3 1 ⅔
" 3 ½ 1 ⅔
" 3 ⅔ 1 ⅔
Young Maori dog (Capt. Rowan's) 3 ⅓ 1 ⅔
Collie 4 2
Bull 4 1
Poodle 3 1 ⅔
Pug, old 2 ⅔ 1 ⅔
" young 2 ⅓ 1 ½