Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 31, 1898
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Art. LXIX.—Moa Farmers.

[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 14th March, 1899.]

In one of the late Professor Parker's valuable papers he showed that some fifteen or sixteen reputed species of moas lived in New Zealand about the same time. “A most unexpected result,” he says, “since all other great flightless birds inhabit each its own country or district. In the whole of Australia, for instance, there are only two species of emu and one of cassowary, while no fewer than seven species of moa have been found in one and the same swamp.”

But here enters the old disagreement about what constitutes a species; and when the best authorities disagree laymen may fairly assume that the question is not, and probably never will be, settled while animals continue to vary. If every man varies, and every living thing is born somewhat different from all others, and if no two leaves in the forest are exactly alike, then why need we disagree about what appears to be only a matter of degree in a universal law? Nature does not build up an animal or a plant in a day, nor always in a century, even from legitimate progenitors; then why should an experimenter expect, in what is comparatively an atom of time, to mix two species that may have taken ages for divergence with millions of individuals and varieties of conditions? An able agricultural writer recently alluded to the “fixity of species” as Nature's majestic law, because some Yankee farmer in his hurry could not mix buffalo with common cattle; as-if one man's lifetime was an appreciable period in the existence of such animals in America!

If Professor Owen had known as little about cattle as he did about moas he would certainly have classed those with horns and those without as different species, though that buffalo farmer would never think of doing so. And, under like conditions, the learned professor, with a cargo of bones, would have given us at least fifty different species of dogs, when With only a cartload of bones he made us out a dozen different species of moas. There were tall greyhound-like moas, and stout massive ones, and on down to little Dandy Dimnont things not above 2 ft. high. This great variety living together suggests the interference of men, for surely

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without such there would not be so many different kinds of dogs and fowls as we have with us now.

We do not find many kinds of wild dogs in Australia, all being levelled up to nearly the one standard of size and colour, because they were practically without interference. On the other hand, there were as many different sizes of kangaroos as there were of moas, but directly under the influence of men and dogs as enemies, from which the moas must have been exempt for ages.

The necessities of defence and concealment in the kangaroo's case gave the various sizes great advantages in their own localities. The wallaby in the scrub, and the “old man” on the plain, had better chances there to escape and multiply, for the eagle-hawk would have seen the wallaby in the open, and the man or dog would have had a better chance to stalk or rush the “old man” in the bush. So that there was something to force their divergence and then keep them apart; while the moas either had men for masters or farmers or had their world to themselves, without an enemy that they cared for. They had an eagle, of course, but it probably had plenty to do attending to the flightless swans or geese, for it was hardly heavy enough to prey even upon moa chickens.

There were identical species of moas in both Islands, which is wonderful when we remember their aptitude for variation, and to my thinking almost proof that the old natives farmed them as we farm sheep, and transported them with the other ground birds from one Island to the other. Stores of food and fencing would have been required according to our ideas of keeping ponies and draughts from intermingling, but these are small matters arising wholly from our habit of thinking that all the old people were fools—an error that will account for many of our difficulties in understanding such things. If it is a fact that the Maoris came and went from New Zealand six hundred years ago through the trackless sea, they must have known more about navigation than [Englishmen at that time, who were then afraid to go out of sight of land; while the Maoris may have been weeks at sea, steering their course by some subtle art and science that some of us at least cannot now understand. Then, why need, we trouble our heads about the fencing and food required for a moa farm? The Lyttelton steamer the other day lost her way in going to the Chatham Islands, and had some trouble to find her destination.

I have read recently that the words for counting from one to ten in the Madagascan language and in Maori are nearly identical, and if that is a fact the dialect is likely to have come almost direct to New Zealand, or at least without any long delays among other island tongues. And, if it was not

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for the habit of thinking above alluded to, we might easily believe that the Madagascan moa was brought here by old-time navigators, who could have also brought roots and fruit and corn for its food, for we are not sure that the climate has been the same since the moa's first arrival. The earth may have taken a slight list to the south since then, and an age of heat, unlike the cold, leaves no deep grooves behind, unless its marks may be in the recent cool and changing forest trees.

If we only knew of oxen by their bones and horns we should not judge them easily farmed; so there possibly need have been no difficulty in taming the moas. The question is, Did the men bring them here, or find them here when they came? In the latter case the herds would have been too tame for hunting, and it would have been only a matter of butchering them when required; and surely a people intelligent enough to build and provision a vessel to bring their families over the sea—no matter from where—would have had sense to see the value of the moas in time to save and foster them, especially in such places as the Canterbury Plains, where the various kinds could have been tended for ages as we tend our sheep.

That there were moa-hunters there need be no doubt, for the arrow-heads alone would almost prove that; but they were probably recent Maoris developed into hunters of peaceful men, and then following up their calling by hunting the moas off the earth. As for not finding human bones with moas, we know how few of ours will be found with those of our sheep, for instance, because the latter are everywhere, with millions of better chances of finding favourable conditions for preservation and ultimate discovery.

At Manapouri Homestead, twelve miles from the lake of that name, and perhaps 100 ft. above it, Mr. Mitchell used to find stone tools and fragments enough to show that the place had once been the site of an old village, and that was almost proof that the lake was up there then. The “Long Valley’ would have been the harbour, and the peninsula on which the house is built would have sheltered the village from the north wind. I think the outlet from a deep lake would hardly wear at all when there are no stones to rattle down in floods; but in this case the Mararoa River brought down material from the drift hills to form Manapouri Plain, and then supplied the stones to cut down the outlet from the lake; while Te Anau, having no such officious river, has long remained about the same. The level of this old village would probably make them into one great lake, bounded on the south by the Takitimos, which I heard translated as “great margin,” which would have been very appropriate then, but is meaningless

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now. If the translation is correct, it is evidence that those old villagers lived on the bank of the great lake, and handed down the name from some far off time when totaras grew on the hills instead of tussock and birch.

On the Bullock Hills, a few miles away, I found what is known as a Maori oven, and near it, on the surface, a patch of moa gizzard-stones; and during my ten years at Te Anau I found—away from the lake—several such scraps of history which could not have been all coincidences.

On the south of Te Anau, a few feet above high water, patches of gizzard-stones are quite easy to find—after a fern fire—lying on the surface of alluvial soil quite apart from other stones, for, of course, such is the only place in which they could be identified in a stony country like that. They are of any size from that of peas up to small hen-eggs, probably representing different sizes or ages of birds, and they tell the story of how the birds died there, or the hunter emptied out the gizzards he wanted to carry away for food; and it is evident that they were never washed by waves or driven by streams or glaciers, or they would have been scattered. So Te Anau remains about the same level since the moa's time, while Manapouri has gone down 100 ft. at least, for I do not remember finding any moa traces on that lower plain.

There was an old village at Te Anau occupied perhaps as late as 1840, but also for a very long time previously, as shown by the distance of some of the sites away from the slowly receding lake and its driftwood. Yet within a stone's throw of the lake, between the little dunes, a party of us found a basketful of big charred knuckles and broken moa-bones, with the charcoal in the fireplace still on the surface, as if it had been used only a few years before. When I first went up there arrow-heads and pieces of moa-bone were common finds. Spear-heads most people call them; but no native would lash a rudely chipped stone on the end of a spear for penetration—the lashing alone would destroy it for that. He would sooner point the stick like the Australians; and every boy knows the necessity of a weight on the point of his arrow. The native evidently did lash those heads on something, and I cannot think of anything else but a big arrow for the sake of the weight to strike a powerful blow, which in my experience is most effective in stunning or stopping an animal.

Some one has written that those charred bones were used for “firewood,” but that is so easily settled by experiment that it would not be worth mentioning but to show that some one is always willing to tangle the ends of every question. At Te Anau traces of trees are as old as the hills, and probably driftwood has always been abundant since then, so that there

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was no sense in any one charring old bones up there; and a grass fire cannot, at all events, char the underside of a bone, for it will not always darken the bleaching on its top.

Some one may ask why those fanciful navigators did not take something more useful than the moa. Well, an animal's value in that light greatly depends, first, on its disposition, and then on its food and on its ability for doing mischief. If the moa was as good-natured and as omnivorous as the weka it would have been a great recommendation in the eyes of the old voyager, with his limited space and opportunity for obtaining food by the way. A weka will eat fish, flesh, or fowl, and get rolling fat on berries, though its staple food is insects. Our tame wekas catch and eat all the goldfinches that come to our place, and they are the greatest egg thieves I ever met; and will stay by a dead penguin or a big stranded fish while there is a mite on its bones, apparently eating nothing else for days, though they have a strong muscular gizzard with gravel in it like that of a goose.

The moas may have been far easier controlled and less mischievous than pigs; may have bred several times a year, like the roa, when food was abundant; may have grown faster than our sheep, and produced better meat, though the latter, of course, would greatly depend on the livers of those old people, who may have been wise enough to choose what would suit them best. They also took care to bring no beasts of prey or noxious things, which would hardly have happened if New Zealand was the remnant of a sunken continent. So I think we might assume that it was the men that stocked New Zealand, if they came here at all of their own accord; and it would be quite easy to believe this if we would only admit that some people this side of Suez could have built aha steered a decked vessel about the same time as Noah.