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Geology of the Provinces of Canterbury and Westland, New Zealand : a report comprising the results of official explorations

(C) Occurrence of Moa-Bones and time of Extinction of the Dinornithidæ

page 437

(C) Occurrence of Moa-Bones and time of Extinction of the Dinornithidæ

In the previous chapter I have already pointed out, that the oldest beds containing Moa-bones, are proved to belong to the Great Glacier period, where they occur in morainic accumulations and silt-beds as well as in fluviatile deposits, formed by rivers having issued from the terminal face of gigantic glaciers during that period. Here they have been traced as low as 100 feet below the surface. In the loess deposits they are also of frequent occurrence where their existence has been proved to a depth of more than 50 feet. Advancing to the quaternary period Moa-bones are found in turbary deposits or in silt or loess on the plains or lower hills, in caves and in fissures of rocks, in fact everywhere where favourable conditions for their preservation prevailed. In common with all those colonists arriving in New Zealand, after Moa-bones had for some time been discovered, their nature investigated, and the knowledge thus obtained spread throughout the country, I was under the impression that the extinction of the Moa by the hand of man was rather of recent occurrence, till geological research has shown me clearly that such an impression is totally fallaceous. In my Presidential address to the Phil. Institute of Canterbury, of 1871, I ventured first to give my views on the subject, and a continuation of further researches has not only strengthened the foundations upon which my reasoning was based, but I am happy to say has been the cause of bringing out a series of papers, either against or in support of my theories, and containing much important matter, which when once sifted will be of great value from an ethnological point of view for all time to come. It would be impossible to go over the whole question in this chapter, or even to review the principal papers written on the subject, which would fill several good sized volumes, and I have therefore only prepared a short résumé tracing the gradual knowledge obtained—in chronological order. The reader can then judge by himself, how far the theory advocated by me has any claim for acceptance.

The first publications in which we find ample material concerning these Islands are those relating to the voyages of the illustrious Captain Cook. That admirable observer, who gives us such a faithful account of the animal life of New Zealand, made enquiries, through his interpreter Tupia, during his first journey, concerning the native traditions. On his second visit he obtained further intelligence from a native Chief, in Queen Charlotte Sound, given in the "Yoyage to the page 438Pacific Ocean," Vol. I, Page 142, in the following words. "We had another piece of intelligence from him (Tawaihurua) more correctly given, though not confirmed by our own observations, that there are snakes and lizards there of enormous size. He described the latter as being eight feet in length, and as big round as a man's body; he said they sometimes seize and devour men, that they burrow in the ground, and they are killed by making fires at the mouth of the holes. We could not be mistaken as to the animal, for with his own hand he drew a very good representation of a lizard on a piece of paper as also of a snake, in order to show us what he meant." It is strange that so close to the Wairau plains where Moa-bones have repeatedly been found, the Maori chief should not have made mention of a still more wonderful animal, a bird of such gigantic size as the Moa was, and we must therefore conclude that it was not an oversight on his part, but simply a want of knowledge. Passing over the publications describing the visits of Captain Vancouver, Admiral d'Entrecasteaux, and Captain King in which no trace of any traditions concerning the Moa can be detected, we reach the time when the Northern Island was chosen as a field for missionary work, during which extensive travels were made by the missionaries and their friends in various directions A series of books full of valuable information were published during a number of years on New Zealand, giving the results of the researches of these hardy and intrepid pioneers of civilization—researches the more arduous as they had to combat the damaging influence of some of the lowest European outcasts then living with the natives. We owe some other valuable publications to the fate of castaway sailors, who were compelled to stay a number of years amongst the tribe to whom they owed the preservation of their lives.

The first of the former works with which I am acquainted is a Narrative of a voyage to New Zealand during the years 1814-15 in company with the Rev. Samuel Marsden" by John Liddiard Nicholas: London, 1817, 2 vols. Although Mr Nicholas has collected many native traditions, speaks of the natural history of the country, and has travelled from the Bay of Islands as far as the Thames, the former existence of a large bird or even the word Moa is never mentioned.

The next publication to which I wish to refer is Professor Lee's Vocabulary of the Maori language "published in 1820. The Cambridge Professor obtained the necessary material from several intelligent missionaries, but principally from personal intercourse with the page 439great Maori chiefs Hongi and Waikato, then residing in England. If the term Moa did not exist in this vocabulary we might assume that it had been overlooked by these Maori chiefs, both of the highest rank, and therefore well versed in the traditional lore and the natural history of their country, but the word is correctly given and explained to mean "a stone, also a name of a person, and of a place." Will it not appear to the unbiassed and unprejudiced reader a very strange occurrence, that the two great Maori chiefs should have failed to give to their European inquirers, at least some account of the remarkable traditions of these wonderful birds, had they known anything about them?

Lesson (Voyage autour du monde de la corvette La Coquille Zoologie, page 418, Paris, 1828) speaks of the occurrence of the Kiwi* in the following words:—"Les naturels nous parlèrent fort souvent d'un oiseau sans ailes dont ils nous apporterent les debris qui nous parurent celles d'un Emou. Les naturels chassent ces oiseaux avec des chiens et les nomment Kiwi-Kiwi. Nous ne doutons point aujourd'hui que ce soit l'Apteryx Australis de Shaw." Nobody will accuse me of special pleading if I ask why the natives did not bring any Moa-bones to the French Naturalist so eager to obtain those of the Kiwi, if they had known of their existence or at least recognized them, as bird bones.

The next work "The New Zealanders" published in the "Library of Entertaining Knowledge," in 1830, contains principally the adventures of John Rutherford, who stayed about 10 years, from 1816 to 1826, amongst the New Zealanders, as a prisoner. He is described in the Work as "evidently a person of considerable quickness and great powers of observation" (page 278) and having been made a Chief, travelled with his tribe in many directions, and although he gives some interesting notes on native traditions, and the natural history of New Zealand, no mention is ever made of the Moa.

"An account of New Zealand," by the Rev. William Yate: London, 1835. This missionary who stayed a number of years in New Zealand, and made considerable travels in the Northern Island, gives copious, notes on the Botany, Zoology, including an account of the Kiwi, but no mention is made of the Moa. We arrive at last to the first work, that of J. S. Pollock, who resided in New Zealand, between the years.

* I may here mention that the first Kiwi skin was brought to Europe in 1812 by Captain Buckley of the Providence.

page 4401831 and 1837, in which a gigantic bird, said to exist, is first mentioned. When speaking of the Kiwi, or as he calls it the Kiwi-Kiwi, the following two passages occur:—"That a species of the Emu, or a bird of the genus Struthio, formerly existed in the latter (northern) island, I feel well assured, as several large fossil ossifications were shewn to me, when I was residing in the vicinity of the East Cape, said to have been found at the base of the inland mountain of Ikorangi. The natives added that, in times long past, they received the tradition, that very large birds had existed, but the scarcity of animal food, as well as the easy method of entrapping them, had caused their extermination." —Vol.1, page 303.

"I feel assured, from the many reports I received from the natives, that a species of Struthio still exists on that interesting island (the South island), in parts which, perhaps, have never yet been trodden by man. Traditions are current among the elder natives, of Atuas, covered with hair, in the form of birds, having waylaid former native travellers among the forest wilds, vanquishing them with an overpowering strength, killing and devouring, &c. These traditions are repeated with an air of belief that carries conviction to the younger natives, who take great delight in the marvellous and improbable."— Ibid., page 307-8.

It will be observed, that also here the word Moa does not occur, and that the traditions quoted are more or less of a fabulous character. About the same time several missionaries, the Reverends William Colenso F.L.S., Williams, Taylor, and some others, began to collect Moa-bones in the North Island, mostly washed out from the banks of rivers, but, according to the Rev. W. Colenso, a close observer, never thought by the Maoris of that time (between 1836 and 1840) to be those of a bird.*

Gradually, the so called Maori traditions have been growing from the few fabulous legends—such as for instance, that of a huge bird with the face of a man, that it lived on air, and had wattles (according to the Rev. W. Colenso)—to those more or less circumstantial accounts of which the latter volumes of the New Zealand Institute contain so many versions. An eminent student of Maori lore who for the present does not

* "Believe me no Maori of thirty or thirty five years ago ever once supposed the Moa-bones to be those of a bird, they always obstinately denied it. That they have since done so is entirely owing to the Pakehas (letter to me dated Napier, July 13th, 1871.)"

page 441wish to enter the arena, tells me that "this can easily be explained by the old rule of Maori etiquette, viz. of commonly assenting to leading questions, especially when asked by a superior, and indeed such was often done, to put a stop to importunity." The South Island has always been pointed out as being the last refuge of the Moa, but both the Rev. I. F. H. Woehlers, of Ruapuke, and the Rev. James W. Stack, as well as Mr. Alexander Mackay, Native Commissioner, who all three for many years past, enjoyed excellent opportunities of obtaining accurate information from the natives, and have been collecting most carefully their traditions, have shown that with the exception of a few fabulous allusions, nothing whatsoever is known of the Moa by the natives.

Similar fabulous traditions exist according to the late Mr Sherbrook Walker, in the Friendly Islands, of an enormous bird and gigantic lizard, a small hill in the Island of Eua being still called Te Moa (Moa dung). Also in many other countries, such mythical allusions to extinct gigantic animals are not wanting of which I may be allowed to quote here a few in illustration. Commencing with Australia, Dr. S. Bennett gives an account of the natives about the Diprotodon in the "Annals and Magazine of Natural History" for April, 1872. In Buffon's "Natural History" we find several traditions of the North American Indians about the Mastodon. Similar traditions, according to Pallas, exist in China and Tartary, of the Mammoth, and Dr Otto Finsch, who only lately has returned from a journey through Siberia, collected several fabulous legends concerning the same gigantic animal from the Ostiacs. In several of my papers treating of the Moa question I have explained how we may account for the freshness of some of the Moa-bones, and how even the skin, sinews, and feathers could be preserved. In most cases this explanation was an easy one, either the geological position of the bones showing their undoubted age or one portion of the very same individual bird being quite as much decomposed as the generality of the Moa remains are, whilst the other is in a remarkably fine state of preservation (as for instance the Tiger Hill skeleton in Otago), or some very favourable and exceptional circumstances could be pointed out, to which the Moa-bones owe their remarkable preservation. In the same publication, I have also given some examples from other countries, proving how the remains of animals doubtless extinct for a great number of years, have under the same favourable conditions been preserved in a striking manner, to which I wish to refer the reader. Since then another and most wonder-page 442ful instance has teen recorded in a paper, "L'age du Renne en Maconnais—Memoire sur le gisement archéologique du clos du charnier à Solutré, Departement Saone et Loire, par H. de Ferry and A. Arcelin, read at the third meeting, August 28th, 1868, of the International Congress of Prehistoric Archæology, at Norwich, published in Vol III of the Transactions of that Meeting, page 319, and sequ. In the kitchen middens of the prehistoric people at Solutré who killed and ate the mammoth, reindeer, and horse, the bones were found in such a perfect state of preservation that they might be taken for fresh. Here is the principal passage having reference to it, page 328: "à part quelques os brûlés, formant un résidu noir et cendreux tous les débris d'animaux sont comme nous l'avons déja dit, d'une conservation étonnante. On pourrait les croire frais, certaines cornes de renne sont encore extrêmement dures, et dégagent quand on les travaille, l'odeur de la corne fraîche. Les os fragmentés ont concervé une quantité considerable de leur gelatine,"

As these kitchen middens date back to a period when quite other meteorological conditions existed in Central Europe, when a fauna different from the present, and containing the mammoth, the reindeer, the horse and some others, now mostly extinct, peopled that country, and served as food to a prehistoric race many thousand years ago, I need scarcely dwell any longer on the subject, the more so as some of the best preserved Moa-bones, with [unclear: ski], sinews, and feathers found in the Earnscleugh caves were accompanied by the bones of the Anas Finschii, an extinct duck having considerable affinities with the miocene Anas Blanchardii of France. As that duck has well developed wings, its extinction cannot be traced to the hand of man, or other recent causes, but must be referred to others obtaining in an era far antecedent to ours. I have added to the illustrations a photolithograph of Aptornis otidiformis, a skeleton of a gigantic Rail, standing two feet seven inches high, and a lithograph of a fine skeleton of Dinornis maximus, ten feet six inches high, with the skeleton of a Moriori, from the Chatham Islands, for comparison at its side. These three skeletons are preserved in the Canterbury Museum.