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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Historic Moa Bone, Sea Snakes and Perfect Sea Tree

Historic Moa Bone, Sea Snakes and Perfect Sea Tree

Although it is improbable that the trader Joel Samuel Polack (who visited the East Coast in 1835 and 1836) came across a moa bone earlier than Captain J. W. Harris (who settled in Poverty Bay in 1831), it was he who first made it known that New Zealand had been the habitat of huge, flightless birds. In New Zealand: Travels and Adventures (London, 1838), vol. 1, p. 303, he says that, whilst he was residing in the vicinity of East Cape, he was shown several large fossil ossifications of “a species of emu or a bird of the genus Struthio … said to have been found at the base of the inland mountain Ikorangi [Hikurangi].” He adds: “The natives claim to have received 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.”

Whilst Captain Harris was on a visit to Sydney in 1837, he notified a Dr. John Rule (who, according to T. Lindsay Buick, was an uncle by marriage), then residing at Windsor, 34 miles distant, that he had left with a Mrs. Pike, of Sydney, a box of curios for him. His letter is dated 28 February, 1837. In regard to a piece of bone which he had included, he told Dr. Rule that the natives of Poverty Bay had a tradition “that it belonged to a bird of the Eagle kind, but which had become extinct. They call it ‘a movie.’ They are found in the banks of rivers.” The fact that Harris's informants coupled the bone with a bird of flight would appear to indicate that the eagle (harpagornis) outlived the moa in Poverty Bay.

Convinced that the bone was that of a huge, extinct eagle, Dr. Rule took it to England in 1839. He showed it to Professor R. Owen, Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons (London), who, although very sceptical at first, eventually satisfied himself, by scientific tests, that “it must have formed part of a skeleton as large as, if not larger than, that of a full-sized male ostrich, with the more striking difference that, whereas the femur of the ostrich, like that of the rhea and the, eagle, is ‘pneumatic,’ or contains air, the present huge bird's bone had been filled with marrow, like that of a beast.” A copy of Harris's letter to Rule is among the Owen correspondence in the Natural History section of the British Museum at South Kensington (London), where the Harris bone is among the exhibits.

Meanwhile, William Williams, W. Colenso, J. Stack and J. Matthews had paid a visit to Waiapu at the beginning of 1838. Colenso (Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 1879, p. 64) says that they were told by the natives about “a certain monstrous animal: while some said that it was a bird, and others a person, all agreed that it was called a ‘moa.’” It was described as an immense cock … having a face like that of a man.” The natives added that the “sole survivor lived on Whakapunake page 371 [a mountain about 30 miles south-west of Gisborne], that it lived on air, and that it was attended, or guarded, by two immense tuataras, who, Argus-like, kept incessant watch whilst the moa slept …” The tradition given to Polack two or three years earlier was that the creatures were “atuas (gods) … in the form of birds, which had waylaid travellers in the forests … killing and devouring them.”

Strangely enough, the Rev. R. Taylor (who accompanied Mr. Williams to Waiapu in 1839) avers that he never heard the name “moa” until he went to reside in Wanganui in 1843. “I found,” he says, “that the natives of the west coast [of the North Island] were totally ignorant of the name given [to the moa] on the other side of the island, viz., the ‘tarepo.’” The tarepo, however, was a wingless goose, for which Professor Owen proposed the name “Cnemiornis calcitrans.” Evidence given in March, 1895, in the Native Land Court at Opotiki (minute book No. 7) in the Kapuarangi block case suggests that the tarepo outlived the moa in the Bay of Plenty. Paora Ngamoki told Judge Scannell that kiwi, weka and tarepo [Judge's note: “An extinct bird as big as a goose”] inhabited Kapuarangi. Ngamoki added that he had obtained his information from his grandparents. Apparently his immediate forbears were unacquainted with the moa.