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The Moa-Hunters of New Zealand: Sportsman of the Stone Age

The Moa-Hunters Of Shag River

The Moa-Hunters Of Shag River

One of the most interesting of the Moa-hunter sites in the South Island is that situated at the mouth of the Shag River.* Its charm to the student lies not only in the wealth of material that has come from it over the long years that searchers have been attracted to it, but as well in the foremost

* Known to the old-time Maori as the Waihemo, probably denoting dead or sluggish water.

page 88 place it has occupied in the debates of our scientists who have wrangled warmly over the interpretation which rightly should be placed upon that material.

Shortly after the close of the incident which arose as the result of the publication in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute of Mr. McKay's paper on the Moa-bone Point Cave researches another bright little battle was fought, the casus belli being the Shag River camp, the protagonists on this occasion being Sir Julius von Haast and Professor Hutton, Curator of the Otago University Museum, a scientist of acknowledged erudition and eminence.

In April, 1872, when Sir Julius was on the point of completing a geological survey of the Shag Point coal-field, he was invited by Mr. F. D. Rich, of Bushy Park, to examine some middens in that vicinity, since several competent observers had expressed to him the opinion that undoubtedly they had a scientific value. From what Mr. Rich told him of the middens, Sir Julius agreed that they might yield some data that would shed a useful light upon “the manner and period of the extinction of our former gigantic avifauna.” He therefore arranged to have some preliminary specimens collected for him, but it was not until 1874 that he was able to devote the time necessary to make a personal examination of the field.

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Arriving on the scene in November, Sir Julius found the camp situated at the mouth of a sluggish river, the old-time Waihemo River, falling into the sea on the north-eastern corner of Otago. The camp occupied a wide area in a warm valley where its inhabitants could revel in the pleasures of unlimited sun and sand. It differed materially from most of the other camps in that, whereas they were but occasional or seasonal camps, Shag River had once been occupied over a long period of time as a place of permanent residence by a large number of people.

For its last four or five miles the valley runs in an almost due east-and-west direction, with an average width of half a mile, and is bounded by steep banks on its northern and southern sides. On its eastern side the currents of the sea travelling from the south to the north have built up and are maintaining a huge sandspit, some 200 feet broad and 60 feet high at its southern end, where it reposes against the rocks which form the southern bank of the river. This spit reaches right across the mouth of the valley, diminishing in height and width as it extends northward towards the outflow of the river, which here impinges against the northern bank. Inside this spit a small estuary is formed, stretching for several miles along the course of the river.

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On the southern side of the valley the country consists of low rolling downs covered with rich soil and a thick carpet of grass that must have afforded a fine feeding-ground for the Moas in former times and an equally favourable hunting-field for the occupants of the camp. From this green pasture Sir Julius visualized the hunters driving the birds towards the apex of the deltoid space formed by the sea-coast and the southern bank of the river, and there, spurred by the dictates of appetite, they would “slaughter the huge birds wholesale.” Then would follow their wild feasts, at which he conceived so abundant a supply of game that the prodigal banqueters would “use only the main portions of each carcass for their meals.”

The stay of Sir Julius upon the ground was not a lengthy one, but long enough to satisfy him that the conditions were not in any material particular different from those he had met at Little Rakaia or at the Sumner cave. He found that here, as there, the fires of the Moa-hunters and the beds of the shell-fish eaters were in places “mixed together in a remarkable manner,” but in other directions he saw a definite line of demarcation, clear evidence to him of two periods of occupation by different people, separated by a long interval of time. In matters of minor import, such as the food eaten, page 91 the manner of its cooking, the disposal of the refuse, and the tools used, Sir Julius encountered no innovations, but rather the strongest resemblance in the domestic economy of these Shag River Moa-hunters and those who had lived in and near the Sumner cave. Thereupon he felt entitled to claim that the observations he had made in the Province of Canterbury “as to the age and position of the kitchen middens in which the remains of the Moa are to be found” were fully confirmed by the examination of these Otago beds, more or less 200 miles distant.

Apart, however, from any judgments which Sir Julius may have formed, or confirmed, he considered the result of his visit to the Shag River most gratifying, for he tells us that not only did he obtain a most illuminating insight into the daily life of the Moa-hunters, but he acquired for the Canterbury Museum some exceedingly valuable portions of Moa skeletons. Amongst these were some complete skulls with upper and lower mandibles and tympanic bones, a few of which at the time still had the atlas, epistropheus, and some of the uppermost cervical vertebrae in their proper position.

The remains of Moas dug from the middens disclosed that the following species were amongst those that most readily fell to the snare or the page 92 weapon of the hunters: Emeus crassus and Emeus casuarinus; and in a minor degree Euryapteryx gravis, Euryapteryx elephantopus, and Anomalopteryx didiformis. Some large bones which Sir Julius assigned to Dinornis robustus were of more than ordinary importance, for the consistency with which this huge bird is represented amongst the remains in the camp-fires at Little Rakaia, Sumner, Waitaki, and Shag River is the best proof that the Dinornithidae were not wholly extinct before the arrival of man in New Zealand.

Contrary to expectations, and to his experience at other camps and of other investigators in this camp, Sir Julius found that only a few of the leg-bones had been broken for the extraction of the marrow, the tibia alone suffering in this way. In like manner a variation was noted in the treatment of the birds' skulls:

“I had,” Sir Julius remarks, “been so accustomed to find in other localities the Moa skulls either in fragments, or at least broken in the occipital region, for obtaining the brains, that I was not a little astonished to excavate all the skulls in perfect state, and, as the position of the vertebrae and of the tracheal rings lying along them proved, the whole portion of the upper neck had been thrown away, as not of sufficient value. It thus is evident that in most cases only the body served for food, and as page 93 some shallow broad cuts or scratches in one fragmentary pelvis and in some femora demonstrated, the same had been operated upon with rough stone knives; some of the intercostals had also been cut or sawn through in the same manner. This intactness of the Moa skulls might also suggest to us that the Moa-hunters were in the habit of killing their prey either by snaring them, by catching them in pits, or by wounding them with spears in the body. Had they used wooden clubs, they would certainly have broken the skulls as the easiest means of securing their prey, just as we find nearly every seal skull broken for a similar reason.”

As in other Moa-hunters' camps, the ovens contained the usual flotsam and jetsam of the sea, the air, and the earth. There were seals' bones, birds' bones of various descriptions, and bones of the dog, but nowhere were any human bones found to suggest that the awful rite of cannibalism existed among the Moa-hunters of the South Island, as Messrs. Mantell and Hutchinson have suggested it existed among those of the North Island.

In closing his series of considered conclusions upon this latest examination of the witnesses of the past, Sir Julius felt in no way called upon to modify any of his previously-expressed opinions, or to in any way change his already-established attitude. He still saw nothing inconsistent between these page 94 middens at Shag River and a state of high antiquity. He states:

I have, of course, no means of judging the age of the kitchen middens of the shell-fish eaters, but it is evident that they are not of recent origin, if we take their position and contents into account. In fact, I believe them to be the equivalents of similar beds near the Sumner cave, and which the Natives themselves assign to the Waitaha, the remotest Maori occupation. On geological evidence alone the kitchen middens of the Moa-hunting population at Shag Point must therefore be pronounced to be of considerable antiquity.*

This allusion to “geological evidence” doubtless refers to an important feature which Sir Julius declares he observed at Shag River, but which had better be told in his own words. After describing the mixture of what he regarded as the relics of the older and the more recent occupations, he says:

Generally, however, they are very distinct and show clearly that a considerable period of time must have passed away before the Maoris, after the disappearance of the Moa-hunters, took again possession of that locality. This is made still more striking by the discovery of the curious fact that the Maori or shell-beds are never found at a lower level than about 2 feet above high-water mark, while the Moa-hunter beds, as far as I could ascertain,

* Trans. N.Z. Inst., Vol. VII, pp. 91–98.

page 95 actually occur in some of the backwaters of the estuary 2 feet below high-water mark, thus showing conclusively that since the Moa-hunters had ceased their work of destruction, and before the shell-fish eaters had reoccupied the ground, the country had been sinking considerably. And if we admit that the former [Moa-hunters] would not have dug their ovens in wet ground, and thus would have kept the bottom of their ovens at least a foot or so above high-water mark, we cannot escape admitting the inference that the country between the occupation of both populations had been sinking about 3 feet.

This lowering of the land-level Sir Julius attributed to “physical changes” which had taken place in that part of the country after the Moa had become extinct, a proposition which subsequently received an emphatic contradiction from Professor Hutton, who says, “A careful examination of the country has failed to corroborate his observations.”*

Whether Mr. Rich was or was not satisfied with the findings of Sir Julius, or whether he was acting in the purely sporting spirit of a fair field and no favour, is unknown to the writer, but in the following year he extended to Professor Hutton a like invitation to visit the site. This the Professor did in the

* Sir Julius returned to the charge in the following year, when he maintained his ground, contending that Professor Hutton “could never have examined the flat in question, or he would, without doubt, have corroborated my observations.” —Trans. N.Z. Inst., Vol. IX, p. 671.

page 96 summer, and in a paper delivered before the Otago Institute on the 24th August, 1875, he has given us his reading of the Shag River finger-posts of history as he saw and understood them. He was fortunate in securing as his assistant Mr. B. S. Booth, favourably known in Moa research as the excavator and commentator upon the great find of bones in the swamp at “Hamilton's,” in Central Otago.* Mr. Booth, in association with a labourer, remained on the site from the 25th January until the 24th April, 1875, and at the end of that time consigned to the Otago Museum ten boxes of all manner of material gleaned from this haunt of prehistoric man.
Confining himself to a wider review of the situation, Professor Hutton relegated the details to Mr. Boooth, who was perfectly competent to deal with them. Reporting in his minor sphere, Mr. Booth found, contrary to the experience of their eminent predecessor, that of the leg-bones of the Moa nearly all the tibiae were broken for the extraction of the marrow. In three months he found only three of these bones intact. The other important leg-bones were destroyed for the same purpose in only a slightly less proportion. All but one of the pelves were broken; and the spinal column appeared generally to have been severed at the junction of

* Trans. N.Z. Inst., Vol. VII, pp. 123–138.

page 97 the neck with the body and again some inches below the head. Very few skulls were found to be broken for the purpose of extracting the brain. The sternal ribs were generally found lying in their place beside the sternum bones, which, Mr. Booth remarks, seemed to have had but little flesh upon them. In one place, only 10 feet square, fifteen pelves were found, a few of them having the vertebrae still attached to them; but every one of these pelves was broken. In two instances bones were found which bore signs of having been gnawed by dogs. From the remains unearthed he identified four species of Moas—Emeus crassus, Emeus casuarinus, Euryapteryx elephantopus, and Euryapteryx gravis.

From all that he saw during his three months' work on the field, Mr. Booth was of the opinion that the “game” was not nearly so abundant at the hunters' feasts as Sir Julius von Haast had supposed, since almost all the bones, except the skulls, were broken. He also thought that the Moa feasts were but occasional celebrations, a small flock of six or seven birds being captured at a time. The charred state of some of the necks and other portions of the birds suggested that betimes the spare bones were used as fuel, for firewood would be far distant in that grassy district.

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Here, then, was an instance in which all the investigators had the same material upon which to work and the same opportunity to work it. In these circumstances it is interesting to observe that Professor Hutton and Mr. Booth came to conclusions exactly opposite to those formulated by Sir Julius von Haast. Professor Hutton was not on the ground so consistently as was Mr. Booth, but he was there at frequent intervals, and from what he saw of the relative position of the beds he tells us that “Moa bones were never found unassociated with beds of shells, and although shell-beds did occur without Moa bones, these just as often underlaid beds with Moa bones as overlaid them.”

Thus there was, in his view, no clear line of demarcation between an older and a later system of settlement—the Moa-hunters and the shell-fish eaters were contemporaneous—and the long interval of time intervening between the departure of the one and the arrival of the other, insisted upon by Sir Julius von Haast, did not exist.

Admitting the difficulty—apparently insuperable—of setting a date to the coming and the going of the Moa-hunters, Professor Hutton did hazard the opinion that the occupation of the camp had occurred before the arrival of Europeans in the country with their iron tools, “but,” he says, “I know of nothing page 99 that proves that the Moa remains are more than a century old, although it is quite possible they may date back for several centuries. There is not the slightest evidence to show that this [sand] spit was occupied at two distinct periods, with a long interval between them, during which interval the Moa became extinct, as stated by Dr. von Haast. In my opinion, the very last Maoris who camped there fed occasionally upon the Moa.”

A result conflicting as is this one must be regarded as eminently unsatisfactory to those in search of enlightenment: one set of conclusions must be wrong—but which? This condition of negation may be capable of explanation in the way that Mr. J. S. Webb, the then President of the Otago Institute, explained it in his retiring address of 1876. Both scientists, he thought, had approached the problem with preconceived ideas: “Dr. Haast went to the mouth of the Shag River with one theory in his head, and Captain Hutton and Mr. Booth followed in his footsteps with another.” They were, therefore, able to see only what they hoped to see, and Mr. Webb might here have fittingly called to his aid Browning's angular but truthful lines which are directed as a reproach against this form of distorted mentality:

 As is your sort of mind,
So is your sort of search: you'll find
What you desire.

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“The observation,” Mr. Webb remarks, “that we see most readily what we expect to see, and are apt to overlook that which we are not beforehand prepared to find, is too old an aphorism not to have long ago secured their assent to it, and none probably would be more glad than themselves if someone who knew nothing of either view could be got to repeat their investigation independently and decide between them.”

Perhaps this desideratum was reached when some years later Mr. David Teviotdale went to Shag River, first as a seeker after Maori curios, and then as a seeker after knowledge. No man has delved more consistently or conscientiously into the secrets of the sands at Shag Valley than has Mr. Teviotdale, and as the result of his wide experience of the locality he has cast the weight of his judgment into the scale with Professor Hutton.* There was, he thinks, but one people and one era of occupation in the spacious days when the men hunted the Moa on the grassy downs and the women gathered the succulent pipi beside the old Waihemo Stream.

* Jour. Poly. Soc., Vol. 41, p. 98.