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The Maori Race

The Moa

The Moa.

Controversy had raged for some years among experts as to the time when the moa disappeared as a living creature. It seems almost impossible to reconcile the statements of the students of natural history and anthropology in this matter. Bones of the birds have been found on the surface of the ground, and in positions in which it seems certain that their owners perished within a few years of the present day. Parts of the bodily frame of the dinornis, such as a thigh and the neck vertebræ, have been recovered, with the skin, tendons and ligaments still attached. Bones of the bird, page 184 apparently cooked and gnawed, have been exhumed from kitchen-middens and alongside old native ovens. The skeleton of a man was found in an old burial cave, with the skull resting on the egg of a dinornis; of course this egg may itself have been a comparatively recent “find.” Most of the dinornis bones discovered have been brought to light from excavations in swamps wherein by hundreds together the birds have perished in flood time.

None of the remains of the large species of moa, such as Dinornis giganteus and Dinornis maximus, have been found with traces of human interference or proximity; there are only the smaller and later of the twenty nine species of the bird which appear to have existed as contemporaries with man. They evidently found food plentiful, were without enemies of consequence, and increased to immense numbers. Whether they became exhausted generically through too great prosperity, or not, only the smaller species survived. As to these, marks of disease have been found on the breast bone and other osseous remains, sufficient to show that they were strongly decadent, and would probably have died out without help from the spear or snare of the hunter.

The students of Maori legend and customs number many in their ranks who assert that the dinornis has been extinct for centuries, and that the Maori (i.e. the Maori from Hawaiki) did not know the moa as a living bird, although perhaps some knowledge of its once existence was conveyed to the immigrant tribes by a race of men already in possession. Such students page 185 point out that every person who is said in tradition to have killed or seen a moa is a myth-being. No feathers of moa were transmitted as heir-looms on weapons or mats; no mention is made of the great bird in even the oldest legends containing lists of food materials, although less important animals, such as the pigeon, parrot, tui, rat, eel, and other wild creatures, are enumerated as parts of the possession passing with tribal lands. They state that although the word moa is now widely applied to the dinornis (so that even Europeans use it), the Maoris did not know that the remains were those of a huge bird, nor understand the mention in their own songs, until they were made acquainted by colonists with the fact after the skeleton had been “re-constructed” from a single bone by Professor Owen. Many of the Maoris thought the remains of the moa to be bones of giant ancestors or rather predecessors in the country. One of the old natives having visited a museum was describing a moa skeleton to his friends, but complained that “the arm-bones were missing.” He was corrected—“but the moa was a bird!” The old man replied, “O son, I thought the moa was a man.”

Here and there a feather supposed to be that of a moa was handed down through several generations, but not one of these is procurable or in evidence. The legendary description of such feather is, from the account of its brilliant hues and “eyes,” more like that of a peacock than of the dull grey dinornis—nor would the plume have been so highly valued had the page 186 living bird been common. However, such a tribe must have believed that the moa was a bird. In the North Island, the East Coast Maoris believed the moa to be a huge bird and that the last one was to be found standing on Mount Hikurangi, between two great lizards or dragons. But, mythologically, Hikurangi is the mountain to which the remnant of mankind escaped from the Deluge. Old chiefs of authority in tradition asserted seventy years ago that all the moa had been destroyed at the time of the (Maori) Deluge.6 A proverbial saying of the Maori was to the effect that the moa was “the bird hidden by Tane” (te manu huna a Tane), that is, by the Lord of Forests.

Lastly, that the few allusions preserved in song and proverb showed that the moa had been lost in very ancient times, and that a song composed at least twelve generations (300 years) ago in the South Island speaks of “lost, as the moa is last,” a remark which would have been absurd had the bird been then as abundant as the supporters of the “late extinction” theory assert.

The subject is still obscure; the bibliography is large and consists mostly in papers scattered through the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute.”

Of other extinct birds, the swan does not appear, even in the faintest echo of legend, to be remembered. The great eagle (Harpagornis moorei) has been perhaps embalmed as a memory in accounts of great rapacious birds, Hokioi and Pouakai, mentioned in old traditions and alluded to elsewhere in this volume.