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

The Moa-Hunters Of Poverty Bay

page 111

The Moa-Hunters Of Poverty Bay

In a paper read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute in September, 1897,* Mr. F. Hutchinson has given us a brief but interesting account of some middens which he found in the Poverty Bay section of the east coast of the North Island. He describes how a pleasant walk of about three miles from Gisborne brings one out on to the sand-hills of the coast at Wainui. Amongst these dunes, up and down the coast, there are to be found heaps of shells, associated with burnt stones, flakes of obsidian, and flint chips, together with great numbers of bird, fish, and other bones, marking old Native camping-places, where extensive middens have been left as memorials of primitive man.

Some of these cooking-places are of quite recent date, but there are also refuse-heaps telling of a vastly older period—telling of times when the Moa ranged through the light bush and on the margins of swamps, when on the hills the tuatara lizard was plentiful, when the little native rat—the kiore maori—abounded in the bush and was regarded as a toothsome addition to the Maori dinner.

The greater number of these old middens lie buried under the low sand-hills; and here and there page 112 the winds, sometimes the sea, have laid the old land surface bare, leaving exposed a wonderful collection of bones and shells, showing what a varied fare these old Moa-hunting, lizard-eating men had to live upon. The best exposure of this kind at the time Mr. Hutchinson wrote was about a quarter of a mile from where the road first reaches the sand-hills. Here, on the south side of the creek which drains an extent of flat land that opens out on to the coast, is a space of a few acres swept clear of sand and cut into four terraces, each about three feet high. These terraces face seaward, the uppermost rising to a level with the flat land, the lowest merging into the sand at high-water mark. The terraces are formed of hard brown sandy loam, and were, some years ago, literally white with the multitude of bones and shells upon them. In this heterogeneous mass human bones were not wanting, and by their presence Mr. Hutchinson saw the shadow of many a cannibalistic revel. The most important contributions to the grim collection, however, were the ovens, the Moa bones, the obsidian knives, and the fragments of Moa egg-shell. These were the witnesses that seemed to speak of banquets on a larger scale but of a less tragic nature.

The Moa bones were confined to the three lower terraces; they were much worn by the drifting sand, page 113 and because they had been heavily burned they were very brittle, crumbling in the fingers if not carefully handled. The egg-shell occurred in small piles of fragments, but, in contrast to the state of the bones, they were so sound and their markings so distinct that it was difficult to realize that they may have been buried for years—perhaps for centuries.

The flint and obsidian knives found were all more or less worn and blunted by use and by the action of the wind-blown sand, but, in the absence of metal, in the practised hand of a Maori carver they must have proved to be most efficient tools for the work they had to do. Lying amongst the debris was a small flint “core” from which some of these knives had been roughly chipped and then discarded.

From all that Mr. Hutchinson saw at Wainui, he was prepared to concede to the middens the merit of considerable antiquity; but from his description of them there is nothing in their general characteristics, the formation of the ovens, the condition of the bones, or the type of stone implements used, to suggest that they were the work of a people racially different from the Moa-hunters in the far north or from the Moa-hunters in the far south—people of undoubted Polynesian origin.

* Trans. N.Z. Inst., Vol. XXX, p. 533.