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Volume 48, 1915
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Art. XLV.—New Light on the Period of the Extinction of the Moa (according to Maori Record).

[Read before the Wanganui Philosophical Society, 26th January, 1916]

It would be hard to find anything connected with the natural history of New Zealand that has attracted more attention than the extinct moa. Over seventy papers, containing several hundred pages of matter, have been published in the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” and of this matter a large portion deals with the period of extinction; yet the date is by no means settled, and I have no doubt that any additional light that will assist in arriving at a solution of this much-discussed question will be welcomed by those who are interested in the subject.

Arguments relating to this discussion have been carefully studied and summarized by F. W. Hutton in a fine paper entitled “The Moas of New Zealand” (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. 24, p. 93), and the writer, after careful deliberation, comes to the conclusion that in the North Island the moa was exterminated by the Maori not very long after their arrival in New Zealand—that is, not less than four or five hundred years ago—and that they existed for about one hundred years later in the South Island.

Among the gentlemen who held a contrary view—namely, that the moa was exterminated in quite recent years—I would mention J. W. Hamilton, J. and W. Murison, J. H. Coburn, James Hector, John White, W. T. L.

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Travers, and de Quatrefages; and there are many others. Others, again, assert that the bird became extinct in prehistoric times, and that the Maori was almost in utter ignorance of its existence. Among these we find the names of B. S. Booth, von Haast, J. W. Stack, Colenso, Sir George Grey, Alexander Mackay, and J. H. F. Wohlers. These writers assert that the Maori had no tradition on the subject, no songs, and, with one exception, no proverbs. These gentlemen were for the most part studious Maori scholars; yet in this theory they were wrong, for the Maori certainly has references to the moa, but under different names. Every one knows that Maori songs bristle with untranslatable names of gods, men, and places connected with far-away Hawaiki, and it is therefore not surprising that such names as kura-nui and manu-whakatau were passed over without comment.

Briefly, the discussion has been on the following lines:—

The first collection of moa-bones was made by W. Colenso, W. Williams, and others about 1840.

In 1847 Mantell deduced from his discoveries that the moa had been eaten by man. In 1864 Buller published letters to the effect that the moa was extinct, but was contemporaneous with the Maori, as shown by the burnt and broken bones on the site of their feasts, and also by traditions still held by the Maori.

Next came the discovery of a skeleton with skin and ligaments attached. A discussion followed, arising from a paper read by Alles, when the general opinion was that the bird had probably been living within ten years. Then, in 1868, E. Newman concluded that the last moa died about 1800, or even later.

The same year Mantell pointed out that the extermination of the bird must have taken place shortly after the appearance of man, as the allusions to the moa by the Maori were so extremely rare. He also pointed out that nephrite appeared to have been discovered at a later date than the extinction of the moa, as it was never found in conjunction with bones at a Maori cooking-place.

In 1871–74 von Haast published papers on moas and moa - hunters, in which he denied the existence of Maori tradition, and sought to prove that the extermination had taken place by a race of people prior to the Maori—a race who were unacquainted with greenstone, and had not even acquired the art of grinding stone. Later von Haast modified his ideas somewhat, and stated that the moa-hunters had reached a certain stage of civilization. This arose from the finding of some polished instruments with moa-bones.

Colenso, in a very valuable paper on the subject, recognizes that the ancestors of the Maori knew the moa, but in a very vague sort of way, as it was extinct long before the genealogical descent of the tribes, which extends back some twenty-five generations. He says allusions are to be found to the bird in Maori poetry, but that these allusions are largely mythical. He mentions that there is a tradition among the Maoris of the East Cape district that the moas were exterminated by the fire of Tamatea, captain of the “Takitimu” canoe. As will be noticed later, the song evidence that I have collected bears out Colenso's arguments to some extent; indeed, according to the evidence now to hand, his deductions are probably nearer the truth than the theory held by present-day writers.

Mantell says, “The extermination of the moas must have taken place shortly after the Maoris reached New Zealand, as allusions to the bird in their most ancient traditions are very slight and obscure.”

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W. G. Mair, a thorough Maori scholar, says, “In all these thousands of pages of Maori lore that I have written from the mouths of [Maori] witnesses there is not one word about the moa.” J. W. Stack says practically the same thing. On the other hand, a great number of writers affirm that the Maori knew the moa well, and has plenty of traditions touching upon its appearance, food, methods of hunting it, &c, some of which are purely romances, others probably true; but the weight of evidence by the bulk of writers is, to my mind, in favour of the ancient period.

In this paper it is not my intention of joining in a discussion to which there seems no finality; what I want to point out is a fact that was unknown or overlooked by both the Maori students and those gentlemen who gave their opinion in regard to Maori songs. The fact that they have overlooked is this: In several of the very old songs and proverbs, probably the oldest, the bird is known by several names—first kura-nui, second manu-whakatau, and (probably) at a later date moa.

I have carefully looked through between eight hundred and a thousand Maori waiata, karakia, oriori, and whakatauki (songs, incantations, lullabies, and proverbs), and have found a fair number of references, from which I have selected from three periods the following. The first and oldest is the last section of a very fine karakia composed by a tohunga named Tuhotoariki, who belonged to a period about one generation after the coming of the fleet. This song was composed on the birth of Tutere-moana, whose mother was in prolonged labour. As it almost entirely deals with the Maori ideas of conception, a full translation might be considered out of place; it is, moreover, apart from the present purpose. The last verse, therefore, will alone be given, also a table showing the period of the composer. As this song has been handed down from father to son right from the period of the migration, it proves to my mind that the moa was extinct, and recognized by the Maori as such, in Tuhoto-ariki's time—that is, a few years after the arrival of the canoes. Indeed, it is probable that he was a boy when the fleet arrived.

The word “manu-whakatau” probably means a bird superior to all others, as indicated by the following ancient proverbs: “Hopara makau rangi manu-whakatau” (The finest chieftain is like the manu-whakatau—moa). “Ko wax tou tamaiti; kapa ko te manu-whakatau?” (Is your child noble like the manu-whakatau—moa?).

Kura-nui had a somewhat similar meaning. The usual interpretation of the word “kura-nui” would be “great-red.” (“Red” to the Maori includes “brown”) “Kuranga o te ao” (The redness of the morning). Also, kura is applied to anything highly prized. A second meaning is a valued feather used for head-dress, such as a huia or amokura feather. Kura-nui was likewise used as a term of address to a high-born chieftainess. Tahurangi (the highest peak on Ruapehu) was another word of address representing the same high idea. Kura was also a term applied to sacred things connected with the whare wananga, or house of learning, in far-away Hawaiki.

I mentioned my discovery to the Rev. T. G. Hammond, of Hawera, who was exceedingly interested, and the day after our conversation sent me the following note, which adds additional interest to the words. “Since our talk about those waiata, I have seen an old Maori who confirms the names kura-nui and manu-whakatau as names of the moa. I have also learned that these names indicate varieties of the moa.” He was aware that there were great differences as shown by the remains, and this mav account for the word momo (race) in this connection.

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A point that should be noticed is that in these, as in most of the songs and proverbs relating to the moa, the word “huna” is used, meaning “hidden,” never “ngaro,” which we would think more applicable, as it means “lost.” This seems to imply that the habit of hiding the head when pursued, characteristic of all wingless birds, had been noted by the Maori and the idea incorporated into his references. It is also worthy of mention that as early as Tuhoto-ariki's time the natives had noticed that the swamps held quantities of bones, and their attempt at an explanation of the fact is certainly noteworthy.

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Table I.

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Table II.

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Table III.

Owing to tribal variations in many of these ancient genealogies it is somewhat difficult to arrive at a satisfactory solution of Tuhoto-ariki's period. In Table I this well-known (to the Maori) tohunga is situated about one generation after Tamatea, or the period usually spoken of as “the time of the fleet” (A.D. 1350). It is now generally agreed that Whatonga and Tara flourished some considerable time before the “coming of the fleet”; and, if that is so, Tuhoto-ariki may have been earlier, but he could not well have been later.

In Table II we have Tuhoto-ariki placed about four generations before the “fleet” period, but in considering this we have the difficulty of Tamatea being mentioned in the song. Now, it is Tamatea-pokai-whenua, the navigator, who is usually credited with the destruction of the moa by his sacred fire, but if we accept this table we must look to one of the other Tamateas of that period (of which there were many) as the hero. In the life of Tamatea of the “Takitimu” canoe, as received by myself, and recorded in the history of Ngati-Kahungunu (“Journal of the Polynesian Society”), and also in the exploits of this man as recounted in Kauwae-raro, not a word about the fire myth is mentioned; consequently it is possible that an earlier Tamatea was the hero.

Table III gives an idea of the frequency with which the name can be met with, but in this particular genealogy it is probable that there was originally only one man bearing several names, which later came to be recognized as different men. However, as these Tamateas could scarcely have been aborigines, it is improbable that they could have been associated with the sacred fire.

Whatever way we accept the evidence of genealogy, it is clear to my mind that Tuhoto-ariki lived about the time of the fleet, and, on the evidence of the song, that the moa was destroyed by those who came hither with the migrations prior to the time of the fleet; and, further, that myth surrounded the memory of the bird as early as Tuhoto-ariki's time.

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This is the first song I have selected:—

  • Haramai, E tama;

  • E huri to aroaro ki Turanga-nui-a-Rua, ki Whangara.

  • E hara i konei, he ingoa whakahua no Hawaiki-nui-a-Rua-matua,

  • Ka waiho nei hei papa mo te kakano korau a Iranui,

  • Hei papa mo te kumara i maua mai e Tiunga-rangi, e Haronga-rangi;

  • Ka waiho nei hei mana mo Maahu ki Marae-atea.

  • Tenei, E tama ! Te whakarongo ake nei ki te hau mai o te korero,

  • Na Tu-wahi-awa te manu-whakatau i mau mai 1 runga 1 a Tokomaru.

  • Parea ake ki muri 1 a koe, he atua korero ahiahi.

  • Kotahi tonu, E tama! Te tiaki whenua, ko te kura-nui,

  • Te manu a Rua-kapanga, i tahuna e to tipuna, e Tamatea,

  • Ki te ahi tawhito, ki te ahi tipua, ki te ahi na Mahuika,

  • Na Maui 1 whakaputa ki te ao;

  • Ka mate 1 whare huhi o Reporoa, te rere te momo

  • E tama—e—1!


  • Come hither, son, and turn thyself

  • With face towards the east.

  • There thou wilt behold

  • Turanga-nui-a-Rua,* and likewise Whangara,

  • Names that originated in far Hawaiki,

  • In Hawaiki-nui-a-Rua-matua,

  • Now lèAft as a korau plantation for Iranui,

  • And also as a field for the kumara,

  • Brought hither by Tiunga-rangi and Haronga-rangi,

  • Now left as a renowned mana for Maahu.

  • Listen, my son, for I hear rumours spoken

  • That the manu-whakatau was brought here

  • By Tu-wahi-awa on the “Tokomaru” (canoe).

  • Reject this story as an idle tale

  • One guardian only, O son, had this land,

  • The kura-nui, the bird of Rua-kapanga

  • Destroyed by your ancestor, by Tamatea, with subterranean and supernatural fire,

  • The fire of Mahuika, brought to this world by Maui.

  • Thus were they driven to the swamps and perished;

  • Thus was the species lost, O son!

[Translation of The Latter Portion of The Song, BY Rev. T. G. Hammond.]

  • O son, the only one who took care of the land

  • Was Te Kura-nui, the bird of Rua-kapanga

  • Your ancestor Tamatea lit the sacred fire,

  • The fire obtained by Maui from Mahuika and brought to the world,

  • And they (the birds) were destroyed,

  • Even the breed of them in the swamps of Reporoa.

The second song selected is of a later period, and is a lament composed by Hau-te-horo for his ancestors and relatives who were killed by Ngati-Ira at Pueru-maku (Tolaga Bay). Tawhipare gave a feast of crayfish to his intended victims, and this food apparently causes thirst. Tawhipare prepared for this by placing an ambush round the only available water, so that those who went to drink would be slain. Many were killed, but in the struggle for water some of the warriors jumped into the pond with their heavy flax pueru cloaks, and, saturating their garments, they ran back to the pa and gave relief to some of their people. This incident gave the name to the affair—pueru, a garment; maku, wet.

[Footnote] * Gisborne

[Footnote] † A place north of Gisborne

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Descent of Hau-Te-Horo from Tamatea, an Immigrant from Eastern Polynesia.

(about Ten more Generations to Present Time).

The lament is as follows:—

  • Tera la te ao pukohu te huripoki ra i runga o Hikurangi

  • He tohu aitua tenei ka tata mai ki ahau,

  • E noho wairangi noa nei i raro,

  • Whakarongo iho ai ki roto 1 ahau,

  • E haruru ana me he tai e whati ana,

  • Haere ra, e hine ma, e tama ma

  • E koro ma e, ki roto o Hawaiki-rangi

  • I runga o Irihia 1 Tawhiti-nui

  • I Tawhiti-pamamao ki te Hono-i-wairua,

  • Ki te huna i a te Kura-nui e ngaro nei

  • I te ahi a te tipua nana i huna; takoto kau Aotearoa,

  • Ko ia te ngaro ia koutou, e Tama ma—e—i.

  • Whakamau atu ra ki roto òA Hawaiki-rangi

  • Ka whai e koutou ki te ara tiatia

  • Ki te Toi huarewa i kake ai Tane,

  • iK te pumotomoto o Tikitiki o Rangi,

  • Kia urutomo atu koutou ki roto te Rauroha,

  • Ma tini o te Marei-kura koutou e powhiri mai

  • Ki roto o Rangi-atea, ka whakaoti te manako

  • Ki taiao nei, e Tama ma—e—i.


Afar off the fleecy mists enshroud the summit of Hikurangi; an evil omen this that hovers near me, dwelling restless and apprehensive below, hearkening to hidden dangers resounding like unto breaking seas. Farewell, O maids and lads. Farewell, O elders, to Hawaiki-rangi, on Irihia, at Tawhiti-nui, at Tawhiti-pamamao—to the Hono-i-wairua; there to be lost to me even as the Kura-nui is lost, destroyed by mysterious fires, and lone lies Aotearoa. Thus are ye lost to me, O sons. Fare on to Hawaiki-rangi, follow the whirling way by which Tane ascended to the entrance of the uppermost heaven. That you may enter within the Rauroha, where multitudes of celestial maids will welcome you within Rangi-atea, where all desire for this world shall cease, O sons.

The third period that has been chosen is some twenty years before the first discovery of bones by Europeans—that is, about 1820.

The accompanying tangi was part of a lament composed on the death of Te Momo, a great chief allied to Ngati-Tuwharetoa, who was killed by Ngati-Kahungunu at Kahotea, near Roto-a-Tara, about the year 1820.

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From a second lament of the same period, composed by Nuku, who died about 1840, the word “moa” occurs in a similar phrase; but one example is enough to show that the bird was known under the name of “moa” about that time.

Te Tangi Mo Te Momo, I Mate I A Ngati-Kahungunu, I TE Roto A-Tara

(Otira I Kahotea).

[The section below cannot be correctly rendered as it contains complex formatting. See the image of the page for a more accurate rendering.]

Tera te whetu, kamokatno ana mai, Me horo mata tonu
Ka tangi te whatitiri Te roro o Pare-ihe,
Ka rapa te uira, Hei poupou ake
Te tohu o Hoturoa Mo roto i a au.
I maunu atu ai.
Iri mai E Pa!
Kaitoa kia mate, I runga te turuturu;
Nau i rere mua, To uru mawhai
He waewae tapeka Ka piua e te tai.
Ki te ara ripeka, To kiri rauwhero
He pukainga pakake Ka whara kei muri,
Ki Te Roto-a-Tara. Kia koa noa mai ra
Te wahine ‘Ati-Puhi
Ma wai e huaki
Te umu ki Kahotea ?
Ma Te Rauparaha, Tahuri mai o mata
Ma Tohe-a-Pare, Te tihi ki Tirau
Mana e tamoe, Mowai rokiroki.
Te awa kei Ahuriri. Ko te huna o te moa
Kia riro ana mai I makere iho ai,
Taku kai ko Te Wera, Te tara o te marama.

A Lament for Te Momo, Who was Killed by Ngati-Kahungunu at Kahotea

(Near TE Roto-A-Tara)

[The section below cannot be correctly rendered as it contains complex formatting. See the image of the page for a more accurate rendering.]

Yonder the star glittereth (winks), Who shall cause the sleep of death
Crashes the thunder, To fall on the waters of Ahuriri,
Flashes forth the lightning, That I may obtain Te Wera as my food
The sign of Hoturoa* And swallow raw the brains of Pare-ihe
(Whose descendant has departed) As an all-sustaining food within
Alas, O father ! thy head now rests
‘Tis well you died, On the (accustomed) stake,
Forward you ran, Thy curly hair
With hurrying feet Blown by the sea-breezes,
That led to insecurity Thy warm-tinted flesh,
By the cross-roads you sped, Now a thing of the past,
Where fell the chiefs at Tara's Lake Giving delight to the ‘Ati-Puhi women.
Who now will be the first at Kahotea? Turns now thy glance (in vain)
The ovens to uncover To the summit at Tirau,§
(Who shall avenge the death-ovens at Kahotea?) That place of ocean-like calm;
‘Twill be for Te Rauparaha, Hidden art thou like the extinct moa;
Or perhaps Tohe-a-Pare, The horns of the moon have fallen

[Footnote] * The thunder crashed and lightning flashed at the death of a great chief, as it did at the death of Hoturoa, captain of the “Tainui,” an ancestor of Te Momo.

[Footnote] † “Turuturu” here is the stake on which preserved heads were stuck, and often exposed in the houses where women were engaged in weaving, and these women used to jeer at the head, as the Nga-Puhi women are said to do in the above.

[Footnote] § Tirau' is a well-known place (now), east of Cambridge, in the Ngati-Raukawa territories, and presumably was the home of Te Momo.

[Footnote] ‡ Tohe-a-Pare was the second name of Te Whata-nui, head chief of Ngati-Raukawa at that time.