The Moa-Hunters of New Zealand: Sportsman of the Stone Age
Chapter IV. The Waitaki Camp
Chapter IV. The Waitaki Camp
O! see where wide the golden sunlight flows—
The barren desert blossoms like the rose.
* The Kapua swamp is now known as Lake Arno.
The summer of 1895 was a particularly dry one, and Mr. T. A. MacDonald, the settler who owned the section adjoining the south-western entrance to the gorge, was prospecting for a better supply of water. Having had experience of dry years in Western Australia, he looked over his ground with a practised eye, and, seeing what looked like a potential spring, he proceeded to dig it out. Before he had gone very far he dislodged first one large bone and then another. “Bits of one of Studholme's bullocks,” MacDonald remarked to Mr. Frederick Sevicke-Jones, a neighbour who was leaning over the fence and watching the proceedings with more than usual interest. “Moa bones, you mean,” said the neighbour, as he crawled through the fence to obtain a closer view. “You never saw a bullock with a bone like that,” he remarked, as he turned over a yellow-looking tibia with his foot. On second thoughts MacDonald believed he never had; and on further investigation he was sure he never had. A few of the bones were taken into Waimate, and page 137 an account of the find appearing in the columns of the Waimate Times attracted the attention of Professor Hutton, who at once entered into negotiations for the purchase of the “claim”; and, for the sum of £40, the said “claim” passed into his possession.
Mr. Sparkes, the taxidermist of the Canterbury Museum, came down from Christchurch to superintend the removal of the bones, but the accounts differ as to the exact size and depth of the excavations. Mr. E. C. Studholme, who saw most of the bones excavated from the Kapua swamp, offers an explanation for this deposit which differs materially from that given by Professor Hutton, who attributed the presence of the bones to the birds being carried into the lake by flood and there deposited on the blue clay of the lake-bed. Mr. Studholme thinks that over a long period of time the birds were bogged and died in a spring-hole. Everything would depend upon the situation of the bones, and that cannot now be reconstructed. Mr. Studholme's reference to a spring-hole is in accord with the conditions observed in the Upokongaro Valley, near Whanganui, where there is a series of round funnel-shaped holes of uncertain depth, full of liquid mud, from which large quantities of Moa bones are being recovered. Mr. Studholme page 138 writes in the Waimate Daily Advertiser of the 28th September, 1935:
With reference to the great find of Moa bones at the west end of the Waimate Gorge in the year 1895 it seems to me that the most common-sense explanation of how the bones all came to be in such a comparatively small hole in the ground is that the birds became bogged in this spring-hole at odd times during the course of many centuries. This seems the more likely, seeing that there were skeletons of cattle and sheep in the bog at the top of the hole, which had, of course, come there during the comparatively few years the country had been stocked. The Moa bones were distributed through a depth of some 10 feet or so from top to bottom, the large number being in the latter position, where quite a number of pieces of egg-shells were also mixed up with the bones. The presence of the egg-shells, and also of the gizzard stones, proves conclusively that the birds went into this hole alive, for no self-respecting Moa would make its nest at the bottom of a mud-hole. If 200 Moas died at the same time they would cover a big area of ground, and the fact of the bones being one on top of another proves that the hole was gradually filled up by birds dying at intervals. This particular hole in which the bones were found was a perfect death-trap for stock, the ground being sound all round it, and then, in one step, you could sink out of sight in the mud. There was another small hole of the same kind about 400 yards away, which also had a few Moa bones and stock bones buried in the mud. The writer also page 139 found the bones of the lesser Moa in a hole on the top of the Gorge Hill, and it is quite certain that a lot more bones could be found in this district.
Whatever the differences of opinion regarding the origin of the deposit, it is authoritatively stated that Professor Hutton took three truck-loads of bones from his “claim,” and that, later, Dr. Moor-house took two more, partly from Professor Hutton's abandoned excavation, and partly from a hole dug about one hundred yards away, across the creek leading into the Waimate Gorge.
Professor's Hutton's subsequent examination and classification of the bones disclosed that at least six different species of the Moa, ranging from the graceful Dinornis maximus, 12 feet in height, to the sturdily built Euryapteryx elephantopus, 5 feet in height, were involved in this mysterious agglomeration of buried bones, but no explanation has yet indisputably revealed the secret of their burial.
It has frequently been suggested that the large deposits of Moa bones found in the beds of former lakes and swamps, such as have been recovered at Te Aute, Glenmark, Enfield, and Hamilton's, and possibly here at Kapua, were the result of Moa-hunters driving great flocks of the birds to their destruction in the hope of securing a few for a meal.page 140
This the writer thinks a somewhat rash assumption. We cannot, of course, always be sure of the methods adopted by the hunters. The chase was almost certain to be the method when circumstances dictated that the birds should be pursued. And yet it is difficult to think that the Maori would be so improvident as to waste hundreds of birds when he knew that he would be able to retrieve only one or two. Widely different opinions prevail as to this side of the Maori character, one school holding that the Maori had no thought of the morrow, and would not regard it as improvident to sacrifice many Moas if it meant a meal for the day. On the other hand there are those who contend that the Maori was meticulously careful of his food supply, as evidenced by the regularity with which he planted, the patience with which he watched his crops, and the jealousy with which he guarded his hunting-grounds.
Into the merits of these discussions I am not disposed to enter, for it has long been my considered opinion that these swamp deposits were never the product of the Moa-hunters' rashness, nor that the Moa, like the elephant, had an inherent desire to find a common grave, and that over a long course of years they wandered to these still waters and lonely spots to die. Rather do the deposits themselves, by their magnitude and arrangement, suggest page 141 that the tragedies were the result of panic arising from some natural cause—most probably fire—from fear of which the birds herded together and in a mad rush to escape death in one form plunged en masse into the swamp, only to find death awaiting them in another form.
From Kapua Lake I was motored a distance of seventeen miles to the mouth of the Waitaki River. There I was shown an area of tussock-covered ground lying close to the seashore, which I was told was the site of an ancient Moa-hunters' camp. Dusk was setting in, and little time remained to do more than to make a cursory survey of the situation, but during this period I saw sufficient to convince me that here was something worthy of investigation. This interest was considerably heightened by the information given me, that the camp had never been examined by scientific experts, and that for all practical purposes it was a virgin field. I subsequently discovered that it was by no means an unknown quantity, and that it had been gleaned over many times during the past eleven years. Still, having regard to its extensive area, I felt convinced that even in that period not everything had been stripped off it, and that I might yet be able to find here at first hand the evidence I particularly desired to find—namely, that at some stage in his life in page 142 New Zealand the Maori had hunted, killed, and eaten the Moa.
As I was going south on an entirely different mission of research, I was not able to remain and immediately test this question, but late in April, all preliminary arrangements being made, I was ready to commence the exploration of the field.
In the meantime a most fortunate thing happened. I received a letter from Mr. Hugh S. McCully, of Peel Forest Road, Rangitata, inviting me, should I happen to be in that locality, to call on him, as he thought it might be within his power to put in my way some useful information regarding the Waitaki camp. How Mr. McCully knew that I was interested in the Waitaki camp I did not know, as I had not then met him. Appreciating, however, the friendly tone of his letter, and being anxious to equip myself with knowledge from every angle, naturally, I accepted his invitation, and on Monday, the 20th April, I met him at the Rangitata Railway-station and he drove me to his homestead, some miles distant.
Mr. McCully is not only a farmer in the district but also an enthusiastic collector of Maori curios. He is more particularly interested in stone tools, and these he has been gathering for over thirty years, and doing it in a most intelligent way. His page 143 first collection he, some years ago, disposed of to the Otago University Museum, and his present collection he now has arranged in a room apart. Of these he has made his own classification, and from that classification one sees at a glance how naturally they fall into groups, or types, and how universally for the same purposes the same types were followed through all the ages and in all countries by primitive man. I spent the remainder of the day examining these specimens of craftsmanship in many colours and qualities of stone, most of which Mr. McCully told me he had picked up at Waitaki, the existence of which field he discovered ten years ago. Needless to say, his collection opened up to me an avenue of contemplation, investigation, and inspiration which hitherto had escaped me.
With his intimate knowledge of South Canterbury and North Otago, Mr. McCully was able to give me much useful information regarding the district in which I was immediately concerned. He was also in a position to point out the relative importance of the vast area of open country which lies around the headwaters of the Waitaki River, and which in the days of the Moa-hunters must have been one of their happy hunting-grounds, whence they obtained their richest supplies. A brief reflection was all that was necessary to convince me of this, page 144 and I readily agreed that before proceeding to the camp at the mouth of the Waitaki River it would be wise to accompany him on a motor tour through this hinterland, which included not alone the valley of the Waitaki, but a portion of the extensive and historic Mackenzie country.
Leaving Rangitata on a beautiful April morning, we drove first through one of the most charming agricultural districts in New Zealand, sprinkled with pleasant townships—reminders of sleepy English villages—and then on to a spot south of Timaru, now called Normanby, which at one time was a Maori fishing-village, but whether ancient or modern no one seemed to know. I was informed that a considerable number of Maori relics had been found there, and that to this day collectors frequent it, in proof of which we saw newly-turned sods, the marks of their recent digging, while on the surface we found many rough flakes of the near-by seashingle which appeared as though they had at one time served as implements with which to dissect the bodies of large fish.
That evening we arrived at Duntroon, and there, next morning, I saw a splendid specimen of a Moa bone—a tibia—hanging up in a butcher's shop, where, it is only fair to state, it was displayed as a curio, and not in the ordinary way of business.page 145
On making inquiry about this bone I learned that some years previously it had been discovered during the process of digging a well at Kurow, and that after a somewhat adventurous career it had fallen into the hands of its present owner. Careful measurements made by me showed that it is 2 feet 10¼ inches in length, 7½ inches across the proximal joint, 7½ inches in circumference at its thinnest part, and 5 inches across the distal joint. From these figures I believe it must have been a tibia of the species Dinornis maximus; and it is in a wonderful state of preservation.
But a short distance beyond Duntroon we early came upon the remarkable physical feature known as the Takiroa rock-shelter, with its collection of curious rock paintings, now diminished in number by the cupidity, it is alleged, of an American professor who succeeded in removing several from their place on the shelter wall, but fortunately not in removing them from the country.*
* The pieces of rock excavated from the wall are now in the Otago University Museum.
* A reproduction of some of these drawings will be found in Trans. N.Z. Inst., Vol. 1, p. 18.
† Mr. Reginald A. Smith, writing in his manual on Flints, p. 53, says in this connection: “Some of these works of art may be simply due to the exuberance of talent, but it is now generally held that the artists drew the animals they wished to capture in the hope and belief that by so doing they would come within the reach of the hunters. This would be a form of magic, and the picture galleries that have been discovered in certain caves, some with the colours fresh on the outline engravings, may therefore have served a double purpose, to please the artist, and to replenish the larder.”
That there were once Moa-hunters in this district is recorded in a letter sent to the author by Mr. G. B. Stevenson, of Oamaru, who writes to say that he has in his possession a collection of Moa relics which he retrieved from a midden in that locality:
The collection I have came from a midden situated about half a mile from the Takiroa rock shelter, near Duntroon. The midden was on the edge of a clay bank close beside an oven, and from it I obtained fragments of Moa egg-shell, apparently from four different eggs; also trachea rings of various sizes, and some small bones and flints. From the oven I obtained a leg-bone and a quantity of toe-bones and claws, which were lying among the burned stones in the bottom of the oven. One of the claws and a piece of the egg-shell had quite definitely been burned. There was also a quantity of gizzard-stones in the midden. These could be identified because they were Marewhenua gravel, whereas the other stones in the vicinity were the usual Waitaki shingle. I think page 150 you will agree with me that this oven must have been used at a comparatively recent date. Unfortunately, the ovens near the rock shelter have all been ploughed over, but I could still locate the one I obtained the bones from. The midden has not been interfered with yet, however, and there may still be enough to confirm what I have told you.
* The sporting instincts of the sea-birds is said to be daily demonstrated at this dam. Numbers of these birds fly inland and collect in the lake above the dam. They allow themselves to be carried down-stream by the swelling flood with all the appearance of indulging in a joy-ride. They approach the edge of the dam with every confidence, and just as it seems inevitable that they must be swept over the brink into the boiling torrent below, they flap their wings, gracefully rise off the surface of the water, and with a cry that resembles a laugh they return up-stream to begin again another “ride.”
* Huruhuru was descended from a Kai-Tahu and Kati-Mamoe marriage and was universally recognized as a mild and amiable man. He was the kind of man whom Walt Whitman described as “the friendly, flowing savage.”
On the day, ninety-three years ago, when Mr. Shortland penned that paragraph he “dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,” and to the truth of his prophecy the agricultural transformation that has been worked in his “now desert country,” together with the giant strength of the Waitaki hydro-electric works, are surely a living testimony.
Beyond the hydro-electric works we crossed the river and visited two sites of old Maori camps—one at Waitangi, and the other at Te Akatarawa. These were former resting-places used by the ancient Maori when on his nine summer days' journey up to the head of the river, or as convenient halting-places by those who used the river as a highway to the sea.
* The Southern Districts of New Zealand, p. 207.
* Mr. McCully informs me that most of the tools found at Omarama were made from a yellow-coloured flint of which I have one or two specimens which had found their way to the Waitaki camp.
† Kaika, the South Island equivalent of the North Island kainga, a village, as distinguished from the fortified pa.
That night it commenced to rain, and next morning when we left for Gray's Hills it was still raining. This caused some anxiety, as between us and our destination there flowed several streams which might be affected, and if they rose in flood our passage would be blocked. This would have been unfortunate, for I regard what we saw at Gray's Hills as affording the most thrilling sensation of the whole journey, and to have come so far and missed the climax would have been regrettable indeed. Happily, the dreaded contingency did not arise, and at about 3 p.m. we arrived at Gray's Hills station. The purpose behind this stage of the journey was to see a quarry from which the Maori in the full flush of the Stone Age hewed out of the bed large blocks of glittering white quartzite, from which his skilled craftsmen chipped the tools and implements necessary in his daily life and for which this material is singularly suitable.
As the crow flies, Gray's Hills homestead is comparatively close to Omarama, but an intervening mountain range compels the traveller to make a circuitous journey which he finishes not far from his starting-point. The station is some forty-four miles from the sea, and is 2,000 feet above sea-level. It is on the fringe of the historic Mackenzie country, page 155 and in physical appearance is a succession of folding hills of moderate elevation intersected by small flats which bear all the appearance of having once been fresh-water lakes.
The site of the Gray's Hills quarry is hidden “deep in the green stillness of the country” close to the station homestead. The station-owner, Mr. Grant, was absent in Australia at the moment of our calling, but a shepherd showed us where the quarry was, and told us we might collect as many “splinters” as we liked. Crossing the road and walking over a well-grazed paddock, we saw the bed of quartzite protruding in successive hummocks above the almost level ground. Beside each of these outcrops holes had been dug, suggesting that the experienced quarrymen had discovered that the stone lying beneath the surface was of better quality than the weathered material above. To secure the better stone they had excavated spaces several feet deep.
A modern intrusion is now observable in the shape of lusty willow trees which have taken root in these excavations, throwing their spreading branches over the rock. Beneath their shade lie the little workshops where the old-time craftsmen sat chipping their “cores” and fashioning their knives, their scrapers, and their chisels. These workshops are still plainly page 156 to be seen in the form of small white patches shining through the closely-cropped grass.
* Cissbury, a camp on a commanding position of the South Downs, about three miles from Worthing.
The Northern Margin of the Waitaki Camp Site
The figures in the foreground are Messrs. H. Beattie and D. T. Larnach.
The Neolithic stage of civilization had been superseded by that of Bronze; that in its turn by the age of Iron; then after an interval, the length of which we know not, came the sequence of events recorded in the history of this country; and yet these little heaps, lying immediately beneath the greensward, had retained their places undisturbed, although the Romans used the camp at Cissbury for military purposes, and have left numerous traces of their occupation. From the time when these chips were made down to to-day  there has been no appreciable change in the surface soil in which they rested.
Save for a lesser lapse of time and a lesser risk of disturbance, much the same element of wonder surrounds the Maori camp at Gray's Hills.
The discovery and use of the quartzite bed which provided the raw material for this mountain workshop, secluded as it is and far from the beaten track, is a tribute to the knowledge the Maori possessed of his country; for it shows how little there was of it unknown to him, and how quick he was to seize upon its natural resources and turn them to good account when and where more suitable material was not available.
My research has not yet proceeded far enough to enable me to say by which branch of the Maori page 158 race this quarry was used. Nor have I observed much of the Gray's Hills material among the flints found in or near the fires of the Moa-hunters at Waitaki; and this, added to the bright* appearance of the chips at the quarry, inclines me to the belief that it was the scene of a comparatively modern industry, and was in use right up to the time that Kai-Tahu began to acquire from the Europeans tools of metal. Among the “splinters” that I was able to collect at Gray's Hills there are one or two nice specimens of finished tools, but I have not observed that they display any signs of a culture higher than, or different from, those found elsewhere.
* Whatever the explanation, it is a fact that surfaces exposed by human blows are more lustrous than surfaces due to a natural fracture.
On the morning of Tuesday, the 28th April, I made a detailed inspection of the ground, and a more intimate acquaintance with the site convinced me that my original plan of operation—to plot the ground into equal sections and dig over each section in turn—could not, on account of the shingly nature of the ground, be carried out, and therefore I adopted other methods more suitable to the circumstances.
* The camp site is still being reduced in area by the erosion of the sea, which is said to be encroaching upon this section of the coast-line at the rate of one yard per year. The first survey was made in 1864, and the coast-line was then 3½ chains farther out to sea than it is to-day. How much more has been lost in all the years since the camp was established it is impossible to say, but we found one midden, which obviously had been laid down on solid land, now out among the stones of the boulder-bank.
The story of how this delta has been built up is plainly to be read, for the same process is in operation just as vigorously to-day as it has been for many centuries past; the land is the product of the age-long contest which has been waged between the river and the sea. Along this section of the coast the northward sweep of the tide is incessant and irresistible. Even the river's mighty current* coming out from the westward is helpless against it, and is maintaining a losing battle, being slowly driven to the north as the years go by. Behind the beaten waters of the river there piles up a bank of rough shingle which in time is overlaid with a thin layer of silt, which produces a crop of silky tussock, matted grass, and stunted tumatakuru (Discaria toumatou).
* “An idea may be formed of the immense body of water which flows down this river during floods, from the fact that vessels, three or four miles off the coast, have dipped up water quite fresh while crossing its stream.”—Southern Districts of New Zealand, by Edward Shortland.
* Paradise duck—so called from its brilliant plumage; putangitangi—so called from its chattering habits.
† When I was there in January of this year I was interested to see early one morning a large flock of seagulls standing in the centre of a half-ploughed paddock. On remarking upon what, to me, seemed a peculiar circumstance, I was told that the birds were waiting for the ploughman to start work, whereupon they would scramble after the plough in search of such worms or grubs as might be dislodged by the shear. A few days previously there had been a holiday, which did not come into the calculations of the birds, and they patiently remained at their posts till dark, hoping against hope that the ploughman would appear and put the plough in motion.
Adopting the old southern terrace of the river as its southern limit, the camp area proceeds in the form of further terraces, each lower in elevation as they proceed northwards. The surface is in places distinctly irregular, being corrugated by shallow depressions which leave little doubt that they were once branch streams and later lagoons similar to those which now constitute the northern boundary of the area. The eastern boundary is an immense boulder-bank, consisting of millions of tons of rough shingle thrown up by the sea, while to the west it fades away into what are now fenced and cultivated paddocks, where the plough has long since obliterated all trace of human occupation.
The easiest approach to the site is from the north, the intervening lagoons being evaded by a short tramp along the margin of the boulder-bank. To the eye of the uninitiated nothing unusual might appear as such an one walks over the irregular surface; and this is not surprising, since the concealment of its real character has been so page 163 complete that for nearly eighty years after European settlement of the district commenced it remained a secret. Until some eleven years ago nothing was known of it as the site of a Moa-hunters' camp. In 1844 Mr. Edward Shortland heard only of “a fishing-station at the mouth of the river,” while Mr. Mantell, in 1848, missed it altogether.*
* Striking in from the coast across the plain, Mr. Mantell reached a point which he calls Te Morokura, where he “heard the distant roar of the Waitaki,” and above which he crossed the river, which, in his manuscript diary, 1848–49, he describes as “a torrent with a freshet channel half a mile in width. We reached safety, after a little excitement on the south side, our mokihi threatening to go to pieces on a bank, all more or less wet—myself, for instance, wet to my neck.” The crossing was made in two stages.
† This kaika stood some distance away from the Moa-hunters' camp, being a village built mainly of sod whares when the Natives were evicted from the “Maori swamp” at Omarama in 1879. Little evidence of it now remains.
In these circumstances he did the right thing, he communicated his discovery to the authorities of the Otago and Canterbury Museums, the representatives of both institutions subsequently visiting the place.
To-day, as the result of further ploughing and seasonal changes, the camp site has reverted to its former innocent appearance, and one might have to look searchingly beneath its covering of tussocks and rank grass to discover its real import. Small heaps of bleached bones might still be thought no page 165 more than the bones of departed cattle, a profusion of white stones lying on bare patches of ground might be no more than stray water-borne pebbles, and a small flint with a serrated edge might perchance be no more than a freak of Nature. Yet all these things have their portents. The bleached bones are indeed fragments of Moa bones, as the expert eye can see by the cancellated structure of their interior walls; the white, sometimes red, sometimes yellow, pebbles are crop-stones once carried by a living Moa to aid in grinding its food; the serrated flint is none other than a piece of the kitchen cutlery used by men and women who were living in an advanced stage of the Stone Age, when metal was as yet unknown to them.
What, too, mean these brown and broken stones which everywhere meet the eye and jar upon our feet as we push across through tussock-covered ground from one terrace to another, so different in shape and colour from the sleek grey units of the boulder-bank or the polished gravel of the river-bed? To find the origin of these stones you have but to look around you, for here and yonder there are low rounded hillocks dotted about. Some are broken down and in ruins, but many are still erect and grass-covered. A closer examination reveals them to be not hillocks, not inequalities in the ground, page 166 but heaps of burned and broken stones thrown from steaming umu into their present position by the hand of man, and of man who lived and cooked his food here, I verily believe, hundreds of years ago.
A moment's reflection will bring these bones, and stones, and flints into their proper relation. They are each performers in a drama which, since the beginning of time, has been staged in all parts of the world—a drama that is known as “the survival of the fittest.”