Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 22, 1889
This text is also available in PDF
(812 KB) Opens in new window
– 70 –

Art. VI.—On the Disappearance of the Moa.

[Read before the Auckland Institute, 11th November, 1889.]

So much has been said and written about the question of whether the Maori people were familiar with the moa, or whether the great bird was practically extinct when the Maoris reached the shores of New Zealand from Hawaiki, about twenty generations ago, that it may be thought that there is nothing left unsaid about it; but I do not think that the matter has been set finally to rest, and perhaps it never will be. Still, every possible scrap of information bearing upon such an interesting point should be placed upon record before the time comes when we cannot possibly collect anything more. For this reason I contribute what little information I

Picture icon

Articles Found in Monck's Cave. Sumner

– 71 –

have been able to gather directly from the Maoris themselves. I will say at once that I am a supporter of the belief that the Maoris never had any personal knowledge of the moa. I have often thought of writing something about this question, and should probably have gone on thinking about it for an indefinite time but for reading in last year's proceedings of the Wellington Philosophical Society the discussion which took place over Colonel McDonnell's paper on “The Ancient Moa-hunters at Waingongoro.”* The most marked thing about that discussion was the way in which the advocates of what may be called the prehistoric-extinction theory were “sat upon” by the other side, not with weight of argument, but mere force of assertion. I believe that the chief argument in favour of what I will call the recent-disappearance theory is the fact that on the plains and hills of the South Island moa-bones were found in large quantities by the first settlers on the surface of the soil, and that the rapidity with which they decayed and disappeared was sufficient proof that the bones could not have been long in that position. But this argument was not used in the discussion to which I have referred; and, further, I am only dealing with the North Island and with the Maori evidence, for Colonel McDonnell's paper was based upon an account of moa-hunting related by the late Kawana Paipai, a well-known Wanganui chief. I remember hearing the late Judge Gillies say that Mr. John White had collected songs describing the hunting and cooking of the moa, and that Apanui Hamaiwaho, a Whakatane chief, had told him all about the killing of the “last moa” by a famous hunter called Hape, near Mount Edgecumbe. I do not know what other stories of the kind may have been put on record, but it appears that on such evidence we are expected to believe that down to recent times the Maori hunted the moa. At the Wellington society's meeting to which I have referred, it was explained that it was owing to the moa being such a common object, and the killing of it such an everyday occurrence, that so little reference was made to it in songs or legends; but surely this is no argument, for rats, pigeons, &c., were common enough, yet we have songs and karakias about them, and long accounts—some of them of great antiquity—describing their hunting or capture. If the moa was ever hunted by man, it is reasonable to suppose that the principal method of taking it would be by means of pits, after the manner in which the ostrich was captured, but not by running it down as described by Kawana Paipai. The Maoris are not runners—in fact, none of the Polynesians are. But has any one heard of a pit or trap for catching moas? During the present year I have seen in the King-country paepae kiore

[Footnote] * “Trans. N.Z. Inst.,” vol. xxi., p. 438.

– 72 –

(rat-pits) in excellent preservation. No man living had seen rats caught in these pits, but their history was known, and it was evident that they were traps for some small animal.

And now with reference to what I have been able to learn about the Maoris' knowledge of the moa. Everybody, no doubt, has heard the story of the “last of the moas” living in a cave on the side of Whakapunake Mountain, near Wairoa, Hawke's Bay. At nightfall it used to descend to the plains and roam about. When it wished to return it rushed with great speed along the level ground, and the impetus thus gained carried it up the precipitous mountain-side to its den, where it was guarded by a taniwha (dragon), whose awful loud breathing was sufficient to deter any one from approaching. This story was told me first by Hori Ngawhare, a Manawatu chief, who died at Waotu in 1871, but I have heard it often since then in different places. Hori also told me that before Rauparaha's migration to the south in 1819 he was living at Maungatautari, and remembered the finding of some iwi moa (moa-bones), which were afterwards fashioned into ornaments, and were highly prized. I knew the late East Coast chief Apanui very well, and among other things he told me the story of Hape and the moa; but it does not agree with what Judge Gillies said was told to Mr. White. A few miles to the westward of Mount Edgecumbe there is a high steep hill on the right bank of the Tarawera River called Te Takanga a Hape. Apanui's tale to me was that Hape pursued a moa to the summit of this hill, when, thinking it exhausted, he reached forth his hand to seize it by the leg, but it lashed out and hurled him back into the valley by the river-side. Being a tangata atua (god-man) he was not killed, but the spot was called Te Takanga a Hape (where Hape fell). Hape's name is connected with various places in that locality. Further up the valley the Tarawera River, flowing from the lake of that name, runs for two or three miles between low rocky banks until it approaches the verge of an enormous precipice, when suddenly it disappears, and then, bursting again from the face of the cliff, it forms a beautiful cascade in a wooded glen far below. It is evident that at one time the river flowed over the full height of the precipice, but it is said that Hape, after the whimsical fashion of divinities, struck the rock with his heel and caused the water to flow in its present subterranean channel; so the place is called Te Tatau a Hape (Hape's doorway). It is over twenty years since I visited this spot, but I remember thinking it one of the most remarkable and beautiful objects that I had seen. I merely mention this place to show that Hape, who is said to have killed the “last moa,” belongs to the “dim past;” and so, I believe, do all the genuine stories about the moa. That the

– 73 –

moa-did exist in that region there can be no doubt, for part of a femur was found in 1869 on the bank of the Rangitaiki River, in the face of a cliff of pumice-gravel, and in the year following some broken bones were revealed by a landslip at Maungapowhatu. An Uriwera chief wrote to me about the find, and even forwarded a sketch of the specimens, for which the discoverer expected to receive a large price; but, as he could not find a purchaser, the bones were worked up into poriokaka (rings for the legs of pet parrots) and aurei (pins for fastening the mat over the shoulder). I may mention that the aurei were often worn in bunches hanging in front of the right shoulder: they were made from sperm whale's teeth, and in recent times from boar-tusks. I have in my possession a very beautiful aurei, which is perhaps unique. It was given to me by an Uriwera chief upon his coming out to the coast to make peace in 1866. He said that it had been “in the possession of his family for twelve generations, and that it was an iwi moa.” An old Whakatohea woman told me that her grandmother had seen moa-plumes adorning the head of a great chief, and that they were “coloured like the rainbow.” When I asked the Uriwera what the moa was like they said it was a tipua (a mythical creature) that could change its form at will to a tree, or stone, or any other object, but its favourite transformation was to a kaponga (fern-tree).

When I became acquainted with the Ngatimaniapoto people, in 1871, I asked some of them to tell me what they knew of the moa; and the answer was, “We do not know anything about it, but perhaps our ancestors did.” I said, “Why, you helped Von Hochstetter to dig up bones at Puke-mapau and other places.” And they replied readily, “Oh, yes! we knew of the bones, but we did not know what the creature was like until the doctor told us it was a great bird taller than a man or a horse.”* This is all that I have been able to gather from the Maoris about the moa, and I will state now what I have not been able to gather.

For many years I have been, I may say, recording Maori history: I mean the history of their land-claims as given in our Native Land Courts. In the interior of this island there are great tracts of forest, plain, and mountain country, which

[Footnote] * Since writing the above I have heard another story about the extinction of the moa. Mr. L. Fraser, the caretaker of the Waitomo Caves, informs me that Tutawa, an old Ngatimaniapoto chief, who lives at the caves, told him that when Ngatoroairangi, who came in the Arawa canoe, received the sacred fire brought by his sisters from Hawaiki, he applied it to the bush about Taupo, and the country became covered by flames and smoke, and the moas, seeking refuge in the caves, perished in great numbers.

– 74 –

show no trace of permanent occupation, but were the tribal preserves or hunting-grounds. Disputes often arose about the rights to these places, resulting in raids or wars, ending sometimes in the subjugation or even complete destruction of a tribe or hapu. The histories of these events are related at great length, as also the various processes for catching birds, rats, and fish, with the karakias (incantations, or charms) used, even hundreds of years ago. We are told, for instance, how Hiaora, who landed from the canoe Tainui twenty generations ago, travelled up the valley of the Waipa to spy out the land. Arrived at Maungarangi, near Otorohanga, he set up his tuahu (altar) brought from Hawaiki and called Moekakara, and there spread his snares in the mangeao trees to catch pigeon, tui, and kaka. Meanwhile his rival, Rotuhuakioterangi, had established his tuahu, called Tanekaitu, in full view, at a place called Paewhenua, and had spread his snares, and then it was a question of which of these great tohunga (priests or seers) could work the most powerful enchantments; and at last Hiaora prevailed, and the birds flew in clouds into his snares. There was one great bird, called Tauherepu, which broke the snares; but as it sat in a tree Rotu thrust at it with a long spear, and it flew away to Mokau, where in after years it was killed by the descendants of Hiaora, who had been expelled from the place where their ancestor first set up his tuahu. This great bird is supposed to have been the last of its kind. We are told, too, how large lizards (ngarara), now extinct on the mainland, were kept by the Maoris as mokai (pets or favourites). Even their names are handed down, and those, also, of birds and dogs. Then they point out to us the individual trees where their ancestors set their snares for the various kinds of flying birds, the paths on the mountain-ridges where they hunted the kakapo or the kiwi, the pitfalls made for the fruit-eating rat, and the sites in the streams of the weirs for eels, lampreys, and smaller fish; and in all these thousands of pages of Maori lore which I have written from the mouths of witnesses in Waikato, at Rotorua, in the Bay of Plenty, Hawke's Bay, Manawatu, Wanganui, and Taupo, there is not one word about the moa. I repeat that the argument to which I have alluded, that the bird was so common that the Maoris did not take sufficient interest in it to describe how it was caught, or to fight over the possession of it, or to tame it as a mokai, or to make a proverb, song, or karakia about it, is valueless, for we know that they did all these things about rats, tuis, and other small fry which existed in far greater numbers than the splendid moa. If scientists who have made a study of the subject say that the position in which remains have been discovered, and the rapidity with which bones lying exposed to the elements have decayed, is sufficient evidence

– 75 –

of the bird's existence in the South Island, at least, in recent times, that is an argument entitled to our consideration; but if we are to be told that the evidence of the Maoris themselves places the matter beyond dispute, then I say that it is due to those who hold the opposite view that the evidence should be put on record.