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The Coming of the Maori



In contrast to bird life, New Zealand had no indigenous land mammals beyond two species of bats (pekapeka) which were unimportant as a source of food supply. The Polynesian rat (kiore, Mus exulans) arrived in the voyaging canoes but though they were included in the traditional passenger lists, they were probably stowaways. The Polynesian dog (kuri) page 103was imported by the Fleet but the Polynesian pig (puaka) was omitted by some strange mischance.

The rat was a forest dweller and increased greatly on the rich supplies of berries and roots in the forests but instead of becoming a pest like the Norway, or grey rat (Mus decumanus), it became a useful addition to the larder. They were caught on the rat runs along the forest ridges by two methods, the pit and the spring trap.

The rat pits (rua kiore) were dug on the rat runs about four feet deep with sides sloping downwards and outwards from the pit opening to prevent the rats from climbing out. In the Whanganui district the pits were dome-shaped like kumara pits (28, p. 229). Sticks or slats were balanced on the brink of some pits with a bait of berries on the inner end so that they tilted when a rat advanced along them to reach the bait. The outer end was attached to a peg with sufficient slack in the string to allow the stick to tilt and then to fall back after the weight of the rat dropped off. Some pits had the baits stuck in the wall of the pit in such a position as to attract the rats out onto the sticks.

The spring traps (tawhiti) were composed of a spring stick (whana, whiti), a cord loop (tohe), a catch stick (taratara), a trip stick (kurupae, rango) and accessory parts. Best (23, p. 437) describes three varieties, unbaked, baited, and portable.

The unbaked trap (tawhiti) was made by bending a piece of supplejack across a rat run into an arch (rupe, pewa) about six inches high with the ends firmly imbedded in the ground. A similar arch was placed behind the first, and upright sticks (turuturu) were filled in between the arches to narrow the middle opening for the passage of the rat. Another length of supplejack to form the spring was stuck upright in the ground a little distance away, either behind or to the side, and the free end was bent down until it was over the arches. A fixed cord loop was attached to the free end and a separate cord was tied to the catch stick near its upper end. Holding the spring down with one hand, the loop was spread out between the arches to surround the opening and with the lower end just above the ground. The catch stick on its cord was brought over the front of the first arch and its short upper end above the tie was caught behind the arch. The trip stick or trigger was placed horizontally behind the inner uprights a little above the ground and the lower end of the vertical catch stick was caught behind it. The spring stick was eased gradually and the strain on the catch stick kept the trip stick in position and so set the trap (Fig. 8a). A rat passing through the opening on its way down the rat run, pressed down the trip stick, released the catch, and was caught around the body by the rising loop which held it securely against the top of the arches.

The baited spring trap (pokipoki) was made as a variation for it was page 104held that some rats would not pass over the obstruction formed by the horizontal trip stick in the unbaked traps. It could also be used outside of rat runs. The spring stick and noose were similar but there was a different arrangement of the catch and the trigger. As shown in figure 8b, the noose string formed a short upper loop (2) and a large lower loop (3). A separate string (4) was tied by its outer ends to either side of the supplejack arches so as to form a free loop. A free catch stick (5) had its front end inserted under the free loop (4) and then in the upper loop (2) and it was held horizontally. The spring had an upper pull on the front end of the catch stick (5) which, acting against the fulcrum
Fig. 8. Rat traps (after Best, 23).a, unbaited; b, baited; c, d, portable.

Fig. 8. Rat traps (after Best, 23).
a, unbaited; b, baited; c, d, portable.

formed by the free loop (4), forced the back end of the catch downwards. However, a vertical stick (6) supported the back end of the catch stick and so kept the trap set. A bait was tied to the lower end of the vertical stick which acted as a trigger, for when a rat with its body in the entrance nibbled at the bait, it moved the trigger and the back end of the catch was released so that the spring stick rose with the noose (3) and caught up the body of the rat against the top of the arches. In this trap, the turuturu uprights were of longer pieces of supplejack which were arched over to form a house framework, which was covered with large leaves of the wharangi and then earth except for the entrance. The house so formed was about eight inches long.

The portable trap (tawhiti makamaka) was made from a length of supplejack, one end of which was split and formed into a funnel by a series of graduated hoops with the two outer ones close together like the page 105arches of the preceding traps forming a narrow opening just sufficient for the entrance of a rat. Light strips of bark were attached longitudinally to the frame to complete the funnel. The bait was placed well back in the narrow end of the funnel (Fig. 8c, d). The unsplit end of the supplejack was bent over with its end above the funnel opening to form the spring. A short cord attached to the spring was passed down through the middle of the funnel just behind the two front hoops and tied to the lower split supplejack. The spring was thus fastened down by a cord which replaced the catch and trigger sticks of the other traps. A fixed noose attached to the end of the spring was passed through the funnel between the two front hoops and arranged against the walls of the funnel. A rat attracted by the bait entered the trap but finding its further progress stopped by the cord down the middle, it nibbled through it and so released the spring and the loop effectually held it against the upper segments of the two front hoops.

The rats became very fat in the berry-bearing season and they were trapped in sufficient numbers to be plucked, grilled, and preserved in their fat as huahua like the pigeons. As pointed out by Best (23, p. 417), a good deal of confusion has arisen over the term Maori rat because the European rat (Mus rattus) was introduced by European ships and, being more of a field rat than a city scavenger, it spread to the forests and came to be regarded as the original Maori rat. The Maoris added to the confusion by potting them in the early days when they entered their traps. However, the grey Norway rat (Mus decumanus) appeared on the scene later and ousted its two predecessors but its scavenging habits as well as a richer meat supply prevented it from being accepted for human consumption.

Throughout Polynesia, with the exception of Mangaia, the people deny that their ancestors ate rats. The Mangaians, who have the courage of their convictions, had a number of ways of catching rats (99, p. 247) but they do not include the pit or the spring trap. However, the spring trap has been recorded in Aitutaki (93, p. 318) for catching wild fowls and in Samoa for wild pigs and rats. The Aitutaki trap and the Samoan pig trap (95, p. 525) both used the vertical catch and the horizontal trip stick but the loop was a running noose which was spread over some sticks resting on the ground with one end resting on the trip stick. The trap was surrounded by a stake fence with an opening so placed that the game had to pass over the noose and the sticks on which it rested in order to reach a bait on the other side. The sticks when trodden upon pressed down the trip stick which released the spring. In the pig trap, the spring stick was very strong and the noose was formed with a rope.

The Samoan rat trap (95, p. 524) was portable but the Samoans had an advantage in obtaining a natural tube from a length of bamboo instead page 106of having to make an artificial funnel as the Maoris had to. In the method of setting the spring, however, the Samoan trap used a similar technique to that of the Maori baited trap in having a horizontal catch suck tied at one end above the snare loop and passing back through a loop attached to the tube. The pull of the spring stick thus forced the other end of the catch downward but this was rested on a vertical stick passing down through a hole in the tube and with a bait tied to its lower end within the tube. Thus the mechanism of freeing the spring was exactly similar to the second Maori method. Bamboo rat traps similar to the Samoan type were used in Micronesia. From the distribution, it is evident that the technique of the Maori spring traps was introduced from central Polynesia.