Art. XXXVIII.—Note on the Disappearance of the Moa.
[Read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, 2nd October, 1890.]
Major Mair, in an interesting paper on the disappearance of the moa in vol. xxii. of the Trans. N.Z. Institute, makes, on page 71, the statement that he is a “supporter of the belief that the Maoris never had any personal knowledge of the moa.” Major Mair so intimately knows the history and literature of the Maoris, and their habits and modes of thought, that one—especially one like myself, who has had time as yet to acquire only a small amount of experience of New Zealand things—can scarcely hope to contribute any suggestion on the subject of the history of the moa which has not occurred to this specialist.
The following short argument, however, which has weight with myself, may, I hope, be found not too trivial to be considered and refuted, if found wanting, by Major Mair.
Last year I had the satisfaction of making a very complete exploration of a recently-discovered cave on the property of Mr. Monck, near Sumner. A general description of the cave and of the more obvious finds in it has been given in a paper read before the Institute last year by the President.* The exploration was conducted under my own direction by two very trustworthy workmen, over whom in my absence Mr. Monck—who evinced the greatest interest in the progress of the work, and who has deposited in the Museum all the worked implements found—very kindly kept a superintending eye. The facts are these: The cave, it is acknowledged, has been closed since before the advent of Europeans to Canterbury, and how long before it is impossible to find out. The condition of the cave on entry gave all the appearance of having been untouched since the last dwellers in it left it. Its entrance was covered over by a very extensive landslip, which evidently fell during their absence, as no human
[Footnote] *Trans., vol. xxii., art. v., p. 64.
bones were discovered in it. Quarrying operations have been carried on amid the material of this landslip for between twenty and thirty years. These operations, on reaching last year the live rock of the hills, disclosed an aperture, through which a lad squeezed himself into the cave. On its floor were found implements in wood and in greenstone, half-burned pieces of timber, and fire-making apparatus, so lying as to give the impression that when its occupiers left they intended to return. The greenstone objects were beautifully made, while the implements of wood, such as the canoebaler, the paddle, and the fragment of a paddle-handle, exhibit ornamentation characteristic of the Maoris. On the floor of the cave were found also numerous largish fragments of moabones, partly burned and partly broken, scattered round the last fireplace, or found on the floor of the inner caves. In the kitchen-midden in front of the cave were found many fishhooks and barbed spear-tips made of bone from the same birds. On the surface were picked up several bones of more than one individual of a species of swan. Just below the surface of an untouched part of the midden I myself picked out pieces of moa-egg shell, each with its internal epidermis perfectly preserved. The question therefore stands thus: The moa-egg shells, being among the refuse of the feasts of the quite recent occupants of the cave, are the remains, it is legitimate to argue, of eggs they had eaten. There is no purpose I can think of, subject to Major Mair's correction, for which the Maoris could have used pieces of rotten eggs; for, exposed on the ground or buried under the soil with their contents, these eggs would soon burst and break up into fragments. It may be inferred, consequently, that these eggs were found by the cave - dwellers in a more or less fresh condition, and were brought into the cave for food purposes. If they were sufficiently fresh for food, I need not point out that the birds that laid them were, or could have been, still living, and probably were so, and that the bones from which the frequenters of this cave made their implements, were as likely to be obtained directly from living birds, or from birds which they might have killed. It may be suggested that eggs of moas might have been found sufficiently whole to be used for utensils. The fragments that I found had not been so used, as is demonstrated by the epidermis of the interior. In the other Sumner caves the remains of moa-eggs were abundant in the kitchen-middens, and were found in such positions as to suggest that they had been used for food.
The black swan (Chenopis atrata)—the only undomesticated swan in the country—was introduced into New Zealand from Australia a number of years after the settlement of Canterbury. The bones of the swans found in the Sumner cave
were also left there by the feasters who ate the moa-eggs, and they too were therefore contemporaneous with the moa.
The figure of a dog carved out of wood was also found in the cave. A good figure of it will be found in the President's paper* to which I have already referred. The Maori dog must therefore also have been contemporaneous with the moa and with the now non-indigenous (if not extinct) Chenopis sumnerensis.
The fishing family or families who ate the moa-eggs, and who last occupied the Sumner cave, were, as far as the style of their ornamentation and handiwork can decide for us, as much Maoris as those who executed the ornamentation of the objects and implements which are exhibited in our museums, labelled “Maori;” and they were Maori, in contradistinction to a ruder people who have been named moa-hunters, as is testified by their highly-executed and polished greenstone work.
How long ago it is since the Maori and the moa were living together I have as yet elicited no evidence from the Sumner cave explorations. Much still remains to be done in the determination of the extensive osteological material obtained. When this work has been accomplished some more light may perhaps be thrown on the question of which this note forms the subject
[Footnote] *Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxii., p. 70, pl. ii.