Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 25, 1892
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Third Meeting: 24th August, 1892.
Sir Walter Buller, President, in the chair.

Paper.—“On the Extinction of the Moa,” by E. Tregear, F.R.G.S. (Transactions, p. 413.)

Sir W. Buller said that, as the author had pointedly mentioned his story of the pet moa, he would explain the reference. At the hearing of the great Rangatira Block case in the Native Land Court in 1882, he (the speaker) acted as counsel for the Ngatiapa Tribe. The title to the block of land in dispute was closely contested at every point by the rival tribes; but one piece of traditional history was accepted by both sides as true—this was the story of the pet bird of the Ngatituwharetoa. Instead of belonging to the “land of pure myth,” this story recounted an incident in the history of the Ngatiapa Tribe; and the account given by a witness well versed in the traditions of the people was as follows: Apahapaitaketake, an ancestor of the Ngatiapa people, stole a moa which was a pet bird of the Ngatituwharetoa. While doing so he fell over a cliff and broke his thigh, and was thenceforward nicknamed “Hapakoki” (Hop-and-go-one). He got off with the moa in spite of this. When the Ngatituwharetoa heard of this outrage, they came down, upon his place and carried off his wife, Hinemoatu, in payment for the moa which he had stolen. Then Hapakoki, in great wrath, went and seized the kumaras of Kawerau; and the Ngatituwharetoa, in equal wrath, made an attack on the Ngatiapa. As the result of all this, the Ngatiapa left the Bay of Plenty district, and came to Maunganui, in the Upper Rangitikei, where they were again attacked by the Ngatituwharetoa, who had pursued them from Te Awa-o-te-atua. Then the Ngatiapa moved on south, and settled on the north-east side of the Taupo Lake; but they were followed up and again attacked, after which they moved on to Tawhare-papaama and Moturoa, south of Taupo and close to Rotoaira, on the edge of the lake of that name, whence they subsequently migrated to the coast and settled down between the Wangaehu and Manawatu Rivers. Now, this was a pretty-well-authenticated story—accepted, at any rate, by rival factions in Court as historically true—showing that the moa was not only well known to the ancestors of the present race of Maoris, but that it was capable of domestication, and that a tame one had been an important factor in the tribal history of the Ngatiapa. It might be urged that this was an isolated case, but he would submit that, even so, it was a sufficient answer to the sweeping assertion that the ancient Maori knew nothing about the moa or its existence. He quite agreed with Mr. Tregear that it was desirable to treat the whole question from an impersonal point of view. The subject had been so much discussed and speculated upon for years past that the band of scientists and workers in New Zealand had, as it were, divided themselves into two schools. There were those represented by the late Sir Julius von Haast, including Professor Hutton, Mr. Colenso, Mr. Stack, and others, who believed that the moa became extinct at a remote date, perhaps many thousands of years ago; and those represented by Sir James Hector, Mr. Mantell, Mr. Travers, Mr. Maskell, and many others, including himself, who held to the theory that some, at any rate, of the species of Dinornis, if not the more colossal ones, had survived to within a comparatively recent period, and had been finally killed off by the ancestors of the present race of Maoris. Sir W. Buller proceeded to give numerous facts in support of the latter contention. He added that the late Professor De Quatrefages had, in a masterly review of the whole of the literature on this subject, arrived at a similar conclusion; and he quoted several passages from a translation of that memoir (“Les Moas et les Chasseurs de Moas”) made by Miss

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Buller, and laid on the table at a former meeting of the Society. He concluded by saying that, although Mr. Tregear, from a philological treatment of the subject, appeared to have arrived at an opposite conclusion, he had listened to the paper with much interest, because it was a very suggestive one and opened up new lines of thought.

Mr. Travers considered that the moa existed as a living bird within a limited period. He referred to Mr. White's description of the hunting of the moa, and to the traditions on the subject. He had no doubt about the evidence that the ancestors of the present race of Maoris had eaten this bird. The finds of bones at Oamaru and elsewhere would prove that the existence was comparatively recent. The Maoris must have known about the moa. A moa's egg was found buried with a chief. The egg and chick, the latter in the embryo state, found in Otago would bear out the recent theory. He did not think it could have meant the common fowl. The word “moa” was given to a bird tall and graceful in its movements. We could not judge of this matter from the Maoris of the present day, but fifty years ago they were familiar with the existence of this bird. It was strange that so many species of this gigantic bird should have existed in New Zealand.

Mr. Harding did not think Mr. White altogether a safe guide on this matter. The place mentioned by Mr. White where a moa was destroyed was actually occupied by Europeans, and yet they did not seem to have made this fact known. As to the preservation of the moa-remains, it was well known that seeds, bones, &c., might be preserved for thousands of years if they were protected from destroying agencies. The natives very often gave information that they thought would please those asking them.

Mr. Maskell said that, if Mr. Harding's views about the Maoris were correct, they entirely bore out his contention that Maori traditions on such matters were valueless. It stood to reason that, if a Maori was ready to invent a tradition about moas out of courtesy to a white man, then the reliance to be placed on any Maori traditions whatever could only be infinitesimal; and, further, it must be clear that neither the absence nor presence of a tradition could form an argument of any value at all. In point of fact, the “traditions” of savage or semi-savage races which had not a literature of any kind must necessarily be valueless the moment they extended beyond the domain of ordinary domestic affairs, or distinct actions of perhaps two or three generations ago. He quite agreed with the President as to the very great importance of the paper by M. De Quatrefages, and he was proud of having been the first to bring that paper under the notice of the people of the colony several years ago, in the pages of the “New Zealand Journal of Science.” As for the philological aspect of the question, it still seemed to him, as he had said on former occasions, that by merely taking words of different languages, and comparing their spelling and sounds, especially if such spelling and sounds were not those of the natives, but those of missionaries, a man might prove to his own satisfaction every conceivable theory. Philology so confined was no real service. The important points for consideration in comparative philology were grammar and syntax, and mere verbal resemblances were not, taken alone, valuable. To return to tradition, whilst he thought little of Maori legends, he did value European tradition, and he well remembered hearing the late Sir F. Weld state often that, when he started from Nelson, somewhere about 1848, to make the first overland journey to what is now Canterbury, the Maoris warned him to be very careful of the large birds which he would meet in the mountains, and which would kick him to death if they could. That was a tradition worth any number of volumes filled with Maori legends.

Mr. A. McKay thought the discussion had drifted from the subject of Mr. Tregear's paper. As regards moa remains, they were to be found in

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or near almost every Maori encampment between Cape Campbell and Catlin's River in Otago; and the question was, Were there in the South Island a race anterior to the Maoris who alone knew the moa? If so, it was strange that the Maoris afterwards occupied every encampment in which moa-remains were to be found. It therefore was a question of moa and Maori or moa and a race anterior to the Maori.

Mr. Tregear, in reply, said that his paper had been misunderstood by most of the speakers, as it had been considered to imply that he considered the Dinornis to have been destroyed at an immense distance of time ago. What he had endeavoured to show was that allusions in folklore and mythology, which had hitherto been taken as evidence that the Maori was acquainted with the Dinornis, were unreliable for this purpose; and he had started a new line of inquiry. As to the value of comparative philology, whatever a single person in his audience might say, it was too well acknowledged as of worth by the greatest minds of the age to need defence. How to reconcile the absence of allusion in tradition and the statements of old chiefs about “the days of the Deluge” with the apparent freshness of the remains exhibited by naturalists the speaker did not know; but he felt certain that one day the true explanation would be furnished, and then every one would be surprised at its simplicity. In the meantime any one who could lend assistance by purifying what was called “the evidence on the subject” was doing some service, however slight.

The President exhibited and made remarks upon an albino sparrow (Passer domesticus) from Nelson, in which the entire plumage was of the purest white.