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Forest Lore of the Maori

The Moa (Dinornis spp.) etc.:

The Moa (Dinornis spp.) etc.:

Of the moa there is not much to be said here, for the Maori has preserved little knowledge of it, and, whatever the intrusive Pakeha may have learned concerning it, this is no place to record his knowledge. If we can judge by the evidence furnished by old middens, camp-sites, etc., then we may say that the earliest human colonists of these isles found the moa in possession of both islands. Not only so but probably man was responsible for the extinction of the moa, and the date of such extinction has been a disputed point for many years; pertaining to this subject a remarkable quantity of puerile data has been recorded, largely in the tomes of the New Zealand Institute, a thing that should never have been allowed. The Maori has provided us with some absurd Statements concerning the moa, but these are swamped in the flood of irresponsible nonsense fabricated and published by witless Europeans. Thus a number of these latter have, at divers places and at different times, stoutly maintained that they had seen live moa. One enthusiast saw one near Sandon about 1870, and it was about 16 ft. in height. Vol. 25 of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute will shew you that a moa was groaning about Gollan's Valley, Wellington, in 1841. The Adelaide Observer of 1844 will teil you of a number of Americans, a people noted for their love of veracity, who saw "a bird 16 ft. high stalking one night along the side of a hill adjacent to the sea, but not having curiosity or courage enough to give chase." Taylor told us in the New Zealand Magazine how Meurant looked upon the flesh of the moa at Molyneux, this, we are informed, was in 1813! At that time the moa ranged the broad lands of Otakou, and the flesh seen by Meurant was from the body of one found dead; natives told him of the great difficulty they had in snaring moa, which we can well believe. He then informs us that George Pauley of Foveaux saw a moa 20 ft. high, and adds that he ran away from it, for which George certainly should not be blamed. Bat the Wanganui Chronicle of May 20, 1858, charms us with an page 183account of the capture of a young moa at Nelson, and of how it was exhibited to the admiring populace at 1/- per head. A matured bird seen at the time was said to be "about 14 ft. high."

Perhaps the most famous of moa hoaxes was that perpetrated by Maling, and this also came off in the Nelson district, an account of which was published in the Examiner, where it was discussed with great gravity. The great footprints seen, 14 in. by 11 in., looked most impressive, and a Maori to whom they were shown "was utterly at a loss to conjecture what bird could have made such a footprint." In much later years Maling was wont to entertain his camp-mates in the North Island with an account of how he formed those footprints on the sands of time.

How the moa came to be so named is a puzzle, for it bears the name of the domestic fowl of Polynesia. There were, however, other names applied to it, such as pouakai, which is said to have been a South Island name for this great bird. In the North Island it was sometimes alluded to as kuranui, occasionally as moa kuranui, also as te manu nui (the great bird), and as te manu nui a Rua-kapanga (The great bird of Rua-kapanga) after a sea-rover who was the first Polynesian colonist to see a moa here, apparently. In a few old songs the moa is spoken of as te manu hou (the new bird), and this name may have dated from the time that it was a new bird to newly arrived immigrants. Colenso, in one of his papers, quotes the following passage from one of the above-mentioned songs:—

xml:lang="mi"> "Ko te manu hou nei e, te moa, hei tia iho mo taku rangi."

but he entirely missed the meaning of hou and rangi, and so rendered the line as: "So that the bird's plumes here present, that is to say of the moa, shall be stuck into the hair of my principal chief." When expert linguists and lexicographers can so treat a simple passage then assuredly we should call on the despised layman to break a lance. Canon Stack, another missionary expert, quotes a line containing the expression moa kai hau, and writes of it, "here moa evidently means a bleak spot." Of the phrase Ko te huna i te moa, he writes that moa here is a contraction of moanal Where moai rokiroki occurs for mowai rokiroki it is written moa i rokiroki by the same expert and we are again told that moa is an abbreviated form of moana!

In 1843 the New Zealand Gazette gave us another name for our great bird, and that was ai moao, but as to what this weird form is a corruption of no man may say. The Taranaki natives told early settlers that many moa-bones had been found at the mouth of the page 184Waiwhakaiho River, and we are informed that the above title is the name "given to them in their puerile language."

In the famous oriori song composed by Tuhoto-ariki we encounter the expression manu whakatau, which is said to denote the moa: "O child! We have heard that Tuwahiawa brought hither the manu whakatau on Tokomaru. Reject such reports, they are but idle tales; there was but one guardian of the land, O child! And that was the kuranui, the manu a Ruakapanga, destroyed by your ancestor Tamatea by means of supernatural fire, and by the ordinary fire of Mahuika that Maui caused to be brought forth to this world; so perished they in swamps, and left no progeny." These two latter names also appear in a certain black-magic charm, as follows:—

  • "Takoto e te aka pae kaihau i to takotoranga
  • Ko te huna i te manu a Ruakapanga, i a te kuranui."

The expression te moa i Hikurangi is met with in Maori songs, etc., and this moa at Hikurangi may have been connected with the mountain of that name on the east coast of the North Island, where bones of the creature are said to have been found. Hikurangi is a common hill name in New Zealand, and it reappears as such at Rarotonga and Tahiti, also we hear that Hikurangi was a famed mountain in the old homeland of the Polynesian folk. One of the Maori floodmyths is associated with a Mount Hikurangi, and moa, mountain and flood seem to be fairly well mixed in the average Maori mind.

Another name mentioned as that of an extinct bird is rauhamoa, but of it we have no definite or reliable information. A Murimotu native stated that, like the mythical hokioi, it was a bird that did not show itself, but that one Taukai-turoa, an ancestor of his, obtained a feather of that bird, and presented it to a Ngati Kahungunu chief, who made him a return gift of a slab of greenstone named Whakatau-kohumu.

The first mention of the moa in Maori lore is contained in the story of one Ngahue, said to have been a deep-sea voyager who accompanied the explorer Kupe to these shores about forty generations ago. These sea-farers are said to have discovered greenstone (nephrite) at Arahura, on the west coast of the South Island; they found pieces of the same in the Arahura river; at a rapid or fall on this river Ngahue is said to have killed a moa, and we are told that he returned to the isles of Polynesia where he reported that the truly remarkable things of this land of Aotea were greenstone and the great moa bird. He is said to have taken back with him a page 185slab of greenstone and some preserved flesh of the moa. In Mr. S. Percy Smith's Hawaiki we see that the Rarotongans have preserved a tradition of this voyage of Ngahue to New Zealand, and of the moa and greenstone.

South Island native traditions explain that, when Rakaihaitu settled there, the moa was plentiful, and various accounts make that time from 35 to 42 generations ago, though such long genealogies are but poor reeds to depend on. Our next note on Dinornis of Aotea hails from about 30 generations ago, when a party of Polynesians under Toi reached the Bay of Plenty from northern isles. A member of this party, one Rua-kapanga, is said to have seen a number of moa inland of Maketu, and, in course of time, he succeeded in capturing one of them, from which were obtained two dozen fine tail feathers, besides other plumes. Thus was it that this huge creature came to be known as the great bird of Rua-kapanga; it was called kuranui on account of the many fine plumes it furnished.

When Tamatea and his party arrived here from Polynesia about 1350 A.D., then these exploring newcomers made it their business to burn off all the open country they could; fern and swamp-lands were swept by raging fires. From these fires, says Maori tradition, the moa fled, mostly to swamps, where they perished; some fell over cliffs and so died. It was thought that they would make for forests, where available, there to seek a refuge, but not so; they sought the swamps.

Our next moa episode seems to have occurred about 300 years ago at or near Mt. Edgecumbe, where one Apa is said to have come upon a moa standing, as usual, on one leg. Apa crept up to the animal and aimed a vigorous blow at the rigid leg, whereupon he received the full force of a kick from the drawn up leg, which landed him at the foot of a hard-by cliff where he is said to have perished miserably, in one version, though in another he is said to have recovered to enjoy the name of Apa-koki, or Limping Apa. The following account of Apa and his moa was given me by Hamiora Pio some thirty-five years ago:—

"A certain people of this island, known as moa, had the appearance of human beings, inasmuch as they had two legs, two arms, also a head, and a mouth, although they did not speak. They stood on one leg and held the other one up, also they kept their mouths open; they lived largely on air, and when a west wind blew, they faced the west with open mouths; all winds, even blusterous ones, served as food for those moa folk. A certain page 186ancestor named Apa, when on his walks abroad on the western side of Mt. Edgecumbe, came upon that person, that is to say the moa, standing there, and looking just like a person. Then Apa struck a blow at the leg the creature was standing on, and he was kicked by the drawn up leg of that person, when he fell down the cliff and so perished. Those folk with drawn up legs are now lost to the world, our ancestors slew them; their bones resembled those of cattle, such was the size of them; I saw such bones at the base of Tawhiuau [a high hill near old Fort Galatea, but on right bank of the Rangitaiki river]. Feathers resembling those of birds were found under the wings, and were used by chiefs as decorative plumes; they were just like bird feathers, and were called Rau-o-piopio; these, with the plumes of the huia and white heron, were prized plumes, and, when a person of importance died, such plumes were used in the decoration of the body for the ceremonial mourning.

"Let me return to the tale of Apa, the man who fell down the cliff; that cliff was named the Takanga o Apa because he fell there. O friend! The people of that strange tribe were called moa, and it is said that the survivors of those folk dwell on the ranges, among cliffs and gullies at such places as Tawhiuau, where some Maori and a European went to seek them since the introduction of Christianity, but none were found. Know ye that the bones of this moa person resemble those of cattle and whales, and both moa and whales are descendants of Tinirau, that is to say of Tutunui." In No. 12 of the Addenda the above remarks will be found in the original Maori.

The above remarks, made over forty years ago by a man then sixty years of age, tend to show what vague ideas the average Maori had concerning the moa, though it appears that a few men knew much more, and one such described the moa and its habits in what is probably a correct manner, ninety years ago, for which see the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 20, p. 54; see also vol. 34 of the same journal, p. 170 for some further interesting data from Maori sources.

It is evident that the Maori knew, and had names for, several species of moa, and that many of its habits, as described by natives many years ago, are those of such birds as the ostrich. Some absurd statements are made concerning the great bird, as we see in the above account given by a Maori, wherein we are told that the strange person the moa had two arms and a head, but that it did not talk. In spite of published statements made by natives to the effect that page 187the moa became extinct about the time that Europeans first settled here, say 1815 to 1825, and that some native informants had hunted and eaten it in their young days, I can only think that such natives were amusing themselves by supplying data that interested the questioners. In order to see what a Maori can do in the way of gulling Europeans, and in inducing them to accept the most absurd statements, one has but to peruse that amazing collection of rubbish, Maori Symbolism. Personally, I have never heard a Maori state that the moa has been seen by man during the past 200 years. One stated that the last moa was slain eight generations ago, but such statements are nothing worth. The most interesting data collected from the Maori folk as to the moa was so obtained 80 to 90 years ago, but was not published until comparatively few years ago, prior to which publication our knowledge of the creature from native sources was a very small quantity. A few sayings of a popular nature have been preserved, and these hinge principally on the fact that the bird is extinct, as in Ka ngaro a moa te iwi nei, and in Ka ngaro i te ngaro o te moa, which tell us that 'the people are lost like the moa' and 'lost as the moa is lost.' The expression he moa kai hau is applied to a sparing eater, he lives on air, like the moa.

Occasionally one notes a reference to the moa in songs, as in the following allusion to the Fire of Tamatea:—

  • I rapa taua, e hine, ki te tahunga a to tipuna i te maota, i mate ai te moa.

The above line occurs in an oriori or lullaby-song composed by one Waikaraka, to be sung over an infant named Hikipakupaku. In another Kahungunu song we have:—

  • Tahuri mai o mata te tikitiki rau mokimoki
  • Ko te huna i te moa i makere iho ai te tara o te marama.

In yet another such song we find:—

  • Kua rongo ano au na Hukuao te koromiko;
  • Ko te rakau tena i tunua ai te moa, ka rewa ona hinu.

Here we have a reference to an old Maori saying and story; the latter is to the effect that the koromiko, a Veronica, is the only wood that will make a suitable fire for cooking the moa, although most people look upon it as an inferior fuel. When burned it is not unusual to see exuding from the wood what the Maori says is the fat of the moa. The saying alluded to is He koromiko te rakau i tunua ai te moa (koromiko is the wood by means of which the moa was cooked).

page 188

In vol. 28 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society is an account of the taking of a number of emu to the island of Kawau in Sir G. Grey's time. Some time later a party of Maori visited the island, and, when they saw the large Australian birds, assumed that they represented the lost moa, and so they greeted them, and wept to see these companions of their ancestors in a New Zealand of the past. One Hemara, a member of the party of visitors, stood forth and delivered a speech to those birds, welcoming them as recalling days of yore and their own ancestors. In vol. 24 of the same journal is an account of the arrival at Otakou of a whaling vessel about 100 years ago, a vessel that had a most interesting passenger in the form of a monkey. The local Maori folk were deeply interested in this creature, and, having discussed the question of its origin, came at last to the conclusion that it was a descendant of Irawaru, and so represented the form of animal into which Maui transformed his hapless brother-in-law, in Maori myth. So it was that grave elders boarded the vessel and delivered eloquent addresses of welcome, and dignified greetings to this descendant of an unfortunate ancestor.

We have seen that the Rarotongans have preserved in tradition a knowledge of the moa as connected with Ngahue, they also knew the phrase Te manu nui a Rua-kapanga, but not, so far as I know, as a name for, or descriptive of, the moa; they explain that it was the name of a large flying kite made and flown by their ancestors. What is more surprising is that the moa seems to have been known by the Tongans, as will be seen by referring to Folk Lore of March 31, 1921; at p. 50 of that number we are told that Maui slew a huge bird called moa. Another reference is to a great bird, 12 ft. in height, that in olden times lived on the isle of Eua, and was known as moa.

Te Matarohanga stated that, in form, the moa resembled the weka, that its wings were one whatianga in length, and there were no joints in them. The unit of measurement given is the cubit, measured from elbow to finger tips of the human standard. The statement that it was given to standing on one leg is heard in all districts, some state that it slept in that position. It is said to have lived on vegetable food principally, though some natives have asserted that it caught and ate small fresh-water fish. It is said to have eaten the roots of the common bracken-fern, a diet that would call for much scratching.

Most accounts say that the moa was slain by means of spears, and that spearsmen lay in wait for it at the sides of the paths made by these creatures through scrub and fern. Others say that moa drives were conducted, and that, if possible, fire was utilized in page 189terrifying the birds; they would so be driven into lagoons and swamps, wherein they were easily overcome. Another account is that the great bird was caught by means of setting strong noose-snares in its runs through bush or brushwood, and another speaks of the birds being caught in pits dug in suitable places. A gifted correspondent in the south contributes a highly interesting note on the subject of taking the elusive moa; he states that natives of the Riverton district told him how they were taken by his ancestors in the good old moa days. A small area of ground was fenced in, surrounded by a strong barrier, and then a fire was kindled in which stones were heated. When these stones were very hot then a woman bearing an infant was sent in to the enclosure in order to lure the moa to enter it; this was done by causing the child to cry, a noise that attracted the birds, when they would enter the enclosure in order to find out the source of the noise. As soon as a moa entered the corral the woman would throw towards it some of the hot stones, which stones would be picked up and swallowed by the witless bird, to its own undoing, inasmuch as it perished miserably. This account is submitted to a trusting public as one of our best moa stories, worthy of finding a place among the equally entertaining ones entombed in our scientific journals.

The Aotea folk say that the moa was a tapu creature, and that it died out because its mauri or life principle became defiled through the actions of the Maori folk when they settled in this land of Aotearoa. Most natives however refer the disappearance of the moa to the famed fire of Tamatea, that is said to have swept over the land in past times. Fire may have been a cause in open country producing fern, etc., but a great part of this land was in heavy forest less than a century ago, while the coming of Tamatea was of the time of the last immigrants from Polynesia, and there were many people in New Zealand long before that time. The great numbers of bones found in the South Island, many of them on the surface, seem to shew that the moa cannot have died out long centuries ago, as some would have us believe. Many such bones were formerly utilized by the Maori, who fashioned from them bird-spear points and short fish-spear points used in wero patiki (flounder-spearing), and matarere for tokotoko, and ripi9 paua, and an ika, and mau kaki (spear-points, shellfish gads, fish threaders, neck pendants, etc.), as also other things.

One of the accounts of the fire of Tamatea contains the following: "The land, was cumbered with dry fern and dead leaves of toetoe and flax, so it was set fire to by man, and all was burned, whereupon the moa sought a refuge in caves, and lagoons, and streams. (E kuka ana page 190te whenua i te rarauhe, i te toetoe, i te harakeke, ka tahuna e nga tangata, ka wera katoa, ka whakamanawa nga moa ki roto ki nga ana, ki nga awa. Another contributor pushes back the period of the fire raisers to the days of Kupe, say forty generations ago: "In days of old the isles of New Zealand were covered with forests, save certain places that were too sterile to grow anything. In the days of Kupe the first folk who came hither lit fires at all places they landed at; it was those fires that destroyed the moa bird of these isles."