The Moa-Hunters of New Zealand: Sportsman of the Stone Age
In November, 1875, the important discovery of a Moa-hunters' encampment was made on the coast of the Auckland Province but a few miles to the north of Whangarei Harbour. Travelling southward from Ngungururu to Whangarei in February of that year, Mr. G. Thorne, jun., came upon a number of page 103 bones of the Moa, prominent among which were several metatarsi, which he temporarily deposited in the hut of a settler on the banks of the Pataua River. Some astonishment and not a little amusement was created in Auckland when Mr. Thorne made announcement of his find, for at that time the dictum of Dr. Hochstetter was implicitly accepted: “that, while Moas seem to have been distributed over the southern part of the North Island, they were totally a wanting upon the narrow north-western peninsula north of Auckland.”
The years had passed, and no authentic record of the presence of the Moa in this region had been made, with the result that it came to be accepted that a line drawn from the Bay of Plenty on the east to Kawhia on the west constituted a limit north of which the Moa had never existed.
Mr. Thorne's find, then, seemed to come into sharp conflict with this theory of a northern limit to the Moa, and to test where lay the truth, accompanied by Mr. F. T. Cheeseman, F.L.S., he, in November, returned to the district for two weeks, there exhaustively to investigate what he calls “this charmful subject.”
After a few miles' walk from Whangarei Heads over the fern-clad hills, they reached the extensive mangrove swamps that lie between the Taiharuru page 104 and Pataua Rivers, safely negotiating this difficult and unpleasant part of the journey. They crossed the Pataua River about a mile from the sea, then followed the north-west bank to the river's mouth, where stands a beautifully wooded hill, 200 feet in height, from which the river derives its name. By a liberal translation this name might be rendered as “the fort of the warriors”; and a truly formidable fort it must have been. The tons of pipi-shells still lying on the summit of the hill furnish a telling proof of the use and value of this pa taua* in times gone by. Mr. Thorne writes:
Standing on the sand-hills to the south-west, you see the river winding down its bed, fully half a mile in width from hill to hill. On either side are mangrove flats and pipi banks, leaving a silver thread of water fifty yards broad at low tide. Some beautiful pohutukawa trees line the north bank of the river; and amongst them are some grand old specimens—one whose trunk measures twenty-one feet in circumference has seen some hundreds of summers, as the erosion of the shore from the spot where the tree first commenced to grow would witness, and pipi-shells form a perpendicular little cliff there fifteen feet high.
* Pa—fort; taua—a fighting party.
It was on the seaward sand-dunes that the greatest number of Moa-hunter relics were found, carrying the searchers back in fancy into the days when the occupants of this ancient camp were “men hunting and fighting, their women loving, and their merry children gathering roots, fruits, and berries, or joining cheerfully in the exciting and dangerous chase of the gigantic Moa.” Lying here were heaps of oven stones, charcoal, and ashes in the cooking-places; while close by there were the remains of many kinds of fish, many kinds of shells, but, most important of all, the following interesting remains of the Moa, which were collected with the greatest care: 60 toe-bones and claws, 27 metatarsi, 14 tibiae, 27 femora, 70 vertebrae, and 5 pelves.
A number of ribs also were found, portion of a skull of a small species, and the lower beak of another species. Many more small fragments might also page 106 have been added to the collection, but were not thought of sufficient importance. The measurements indicate that the following species were among the birds living in the district at the time of their capture:
- Dinornis ingens: 1 tarso-metatarsus.
- D. novae-zealandiae: 3 femora, 3 tibio-tarsi, 5 tarsometatarsi.
- Anomalopteryx parvus: 2 tibio-tarsi.
- A. didiformis: 2 femora, 1 tarso-metatarsus.
- A. curtus: 4 femora, 5 tibio-tarsi, 8 tarso-metatarsi.
- A. oweni: 3 femora, 2 tibio-tarsi, 8 tarso-metatarsi.
On the old bed of fine hard brown sand there were lying numerous flakes of obsidian, the knives and cutters of the diners. These chips were now blunted and broken by hard use, but others still retaining their keen edge were recovered at spots suggesting the sites of ancient workshops where this class of domestic cutlery was manufactured. Seven adzes, or substantial portions of them, also were found at various points in the camp, thus demonstrating beyond all cavil that the Moa-hunter of the North Island possessed and used polished tools as did his contemporaries in the South Island.
Fragments of Moa egg-shell, too, were to be gathered upon the surface of this sandy ridge, indicative that here, as elsewhere, the egg of the bird was readily appropriated as food fit for a hunter. These fragments, evidently from different eggs, were for the most part so small that nothing could be done with them. One piece, however, about 3 inches long, was of sufficient size to enable a measurement page 108 of the curvature to be made, resulting in a calculation which gave a diameter of 8.625 inches.
Further evidence of the existence of the Moa in the far north was found in other localities, but not in such circumstances as to suggest that they had fallen by the hand of the Moa-hunter. Of those found at Pataua, however, Mr. Thorne had no doubt that “these huge wingless birds had lived, were hunted, and eaten there.”
Hesitating rashly to enter upon a series of “conclusions” based on what he saw at Pataua, Mr. Thorne nevertheless felt convinced that the physical character of the locality unmistakably supported the above summation of the facts. Anyone viewing the situation could, he thought, have no difficulty in mentally picturing how the Moa-hunters would skilfully drive the sluggish, stupid birds down the mud-flats and bed of the Pataua River on to the narrow sand-dunes between the impassable swamp and the sea, as they would drive them into the most cleverly contrived trap. Here the real struggle would take place, and the result would determine whether one or more birds would break through the fast-closing cordon of enemies, or whether all would fall by the spear-thrusts of the expert hunters.page 109
Mr. Thorne remarks that it is interesting also to find this bird in these wooded parts, for although there were a few acres of fern land to the east of Parua Bay, yet the Moa could not have lived there without entering the timbered country and feeding on roots, for which he would dig with his powerful feet, or berries, which he would reach with his elevated beak. However, the extensive flats and pipi-banks, dry at low water, would furnish an abundant supply of food for the Moa if he had a relish for molluscs or small fish, which he thought very probable.
That the Moa frequented the estuaries of rivers and the shores of the sea is unquestionable. The fossil footprints of a bird and its chick at the mouth of the Taruheru River, near Gisborne, the footprints of individual birds found in the bed of the Manawatu River, and the frequency with which the remains of these birds have been found in proximity to the seashore is proof of this. One of the earliest traditions which Dr. John Rule had from his nephew, John Williams Harris, before he took to England the first piece of Moa bone that arrived there was that the Moa visited the banks of rivers to feed; and from this, and all else that he heard, Rule concluded that “it may have fed on fishes when they were young, or when near or after spawning, page 110 or that it fed its young with fish or the excretiae of fishes.”
Darwin, too, noted the same disposition on the part of the rhea, or what he calls the “South American ostriches.” Of these birds he says:
Although they live on vegetable matter, such as roots and grass, they are repeatedly seen at Bahia Blanca, on the south coast of Buenos Aires, coming down at low water to the extensive mud-banks, which are then dry, for the sake of eating or, as the Gauchos say, of feeding on small fish.
After speculating upon the chances of the Moas crossing rivers and frequenting the Whangarei Harbour to feed along the large flats which there are dry at low tide, Mr. Thorne gives us in these pregnant words his final “conclusion” upon what he saw and found in this northern district:
These huge, wingless birds of the past have disappeared, and given place to other and perhaps more beautiful forms of life. It is no use guessing how long ago these creatures flourished on the earth. We certainly know that they lived in New Zealand down to very recent times, and we rightly judge that their disappearance in New Zealand was hastened and completed by the hand of hunters, who, to my mind, were, without doubt, the ancestors of the Maori.*
* Trans. N.Z. Inst., Vol. VIII, pp. 83–94.