Volume 20 1911 > Volume 20, No. 2 > The Maori and the moa, p 54-59
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- 54

IT has been a matter of discussion amongst scientists and others for over fifty years, as to whether the Maori—properly so called—ever knew the Moa (Dinornis) as a living bird. It has been affirmed by some and denied by others, whilst many have held that the bird was seen by and finally exterminated by the so-called Tangata-whenua, or original inhabitants of these isles, who were in occupation when the Maoris first arrived in the times of Toi-te-huatahi, who flourished about the middle of the twelfth century. The period of Toi is probably as well fixed as any date in Polynesian history, and therefore is important in this connection. On his arrival from Tahiti he found the West Coast of the North Island occupied from the North Cape to Wai-ngongoro (in South Taranaki Bight), and the East Coast from the North Cape to the eastern parts of The Bay of Plenty. The people Toi found here arrived in six canoes, that made the land at Nga-Motu (the Sugar-loaf Islands), near New Plymouth, and from there spread outwards. These people differed somewhat from the Eastern, or purer Polynesians known as the Maoris, in that they were more mixed with a Melanesian strain—somewhat like the Fiji Islanders so far as the description of them that has been handed down can be trusted. These people were the true Tangata-whenua, or original inhabitants, who arrived here after the discovery of the islands by Kupe, and by many are believed to be the people who exterminated the Moa. The following account goes to show that the Moa was alive in the North Island on the arrival of Toi-te-huatahi, circa 1150.

As no doubt the publication of the following account of the Moa will give rise to some discussion, it will be as well to state the authority for it. It is no doubt strange that the facts stated in this account have not come to light before. But they formed part of a series of valuable papers that were dictated by some of the old priests of the Whare-wānanga, or house of learning, and until quite lately have been considered of so sacred, or semi-sacred a character, that they have not been communicated to Europeans.

The particular part of these documents relating to the Moa, were dictated to Mr. J. M. Jury at Poverty Bay, in 1839-40, by the old men Te Apaapa-o-te-rangi, Kahutia, and Te Akitu, and in February, 1840, were copied out for H. T. Whatahoro (Mr. Jury's son), and - 55 have been in his possession ever since. It is by the latter's courtesy I am enabled to use his father's notes.

Biologists will at once feel inclined to discard the description of the Moa given in this paper, because it mentions that it had wings. There is a possible explanation of this I think. In the first place we must remember that the tradition has been handed down through many generations, and is therefore liable to variation and additions. It is possible that the ‘wings’ have been added to the story in more recent times, when the Moa had disappeared and its exact description forgotten. There has, possibly, been some confusion of ideas as to the traditional account of the Moa and that of another traditional monstrous bird which partook, according to those traditions, more of the character of the Pterodactyle, having a reptile body and large wings, and this tradition is very ancient indeed. However this may be, the account of the habits of the Moa agree with what has been deduced from a study of their skeletons, and shows why the bones are so often found in swamps, etc.

The original Maori of this tradition will be printed with others later on.

After explaining about the parts of the country occupied by the Tangata-whenua (which differs somewhat from the much fuller account we have) the narrative states (I translate)—“Now, the great reason why those other parts were unoccupied by man, right over to the South Island, was a bird the Kura-nui, that is, a Moa—now so called. The proper name of this bird is a Kura-nui. The first man to discover this bird was Rua-kapanga, who came over in Toi's canoe; Te Manu-waero-rua (Toi's father) was the elder brother, and Rua-kapanga was the younger. 1

“Rua-kapanga went on one occasion with some men of Ngati-Whiti-kau, one of the sub-divisions of Ngati-Te-Pananehu (aboriginal people), away inland of Maketu (in the Bay of Plenty) to the forests, to snare birds. After they had been there for a long time, Rua-kapanga ascended a ridge to see what the nature of the country was like. As he sat there, he beheld a bird passing along the open plain by the course of a stream. He said to himself, What manner of bird is this? He thought it might be a ngarara (reptile) that had taken on the form of a bird. He said to his companions, ‘Perhaps it is - 56 Upoko-hao-kai or Ngarara-huarau. 2 Those ngarara have at all times the power of changing their form—sometimes into a whale, a seal, a man, or a long-haired dog.’ He commanded his companions to remain concealed lest it (the bird) should think they were after it. When the bird came close under where they were, they then distinctly saw that it was not a ngarara but a monstrous bird indeed!

“Nevertheless, they had some doubts about it because of its extraordinary size. It was not long before others appeared, seventeen of them, coming along by the same way as the first. Rua-kapanga had now no doubt they were not ngararas, and was sure they were birds. They stretched forth their necks to gather the fruits, how long indeed were their necks! When they came to the banks of the stream, they stood on the edge and stretched down their necks into the water and brought up some kakahi (fresh water mussels), cray-fish, fish, mud, and eels. Tawa, matai, hinau, and pokaka trees furnished the fruit they ate, and from the banks of the stream they got the koka (or wild turnip) of which they ate the whole from the leaves to the root—not a fragment was left.

“Rua-kapanga now sent forward his two dogs named ‘Te Ata-kura’ and ‘Kau-moana,’ the first of which was a female. When the two dogs reached the birds they all gathered together, and stood, not moving, whilst the feathers on their backs and necks stood up, and their wings expanded like a common fowl. Each stretched out its neck in front. Now it was that Rua-kapanga descended from the top of the ridge to just above the birds, and urged on his dogs, at which the male dog flew at them, when one of the birds struck him a downward blow on its head, with its beak, and killed the dog. The birds then ran up and picked at the body with their beaks, first taking out the eyes, afterwards piercing the body. Rua-kapanga called off his other dog, and then the people cast stones at the birds which went off leisurely without apparent fear, occasionally stopping and turning round and looking at the men on the ridge; then they departed making a noise with their mouths. They did not run at all, but went off slowly, sometimes turning to look behind at the men, then going on feeding on the leaves of young grass and wild cabbage.”

The narrative then side-tracks off to fully describe Rua-kapanga's companions, but this will appear in full later on.

“My narrative will now return to the birds seen by Rua-kapanga. He was accompanied by Autā, Komako, Waihao, Kawa-a-kura and Mohio, which are all the names that were handed down in the - 57 Whare-wānanga. All these people were companions of Toi-te-hua-tahi; Te Kawa-a-kura was the brother of Te Huiarei, Toi's wife, whilst Waihao was another brother-in-law. … Rua-kapanga and his friends went to follow the tracks of the birds, which they ascertained followed the banks of the stream, or in the water, sometimes on the edge of the swamps. They did not ascend the hills, but kept close to the water; and it was here they slept, or else near the edges of the swamps, or undulating or level land. In such places they rested or slept. They also inhabited caves during the winter time.

“When they found the tracks used by the birds they proceeded to build a snare in the track” [a sketch shows the snare, like a gallows with three uprights] “with a rope fastened to a post near the snare, so that if the bird got caught it would be held by the post, and thus be snared. They then awaited the coming of the birds. In the morning the birds came along.

“The name for the birds was not known at that time; but they called them ‘Te Manu-whakatau,’ because the height was the same as a man, such was the length of the neck and the legs.” [It is not clear whether this means that the whole height was equal to a man's, or whether it was twice the height.] “Enough of that. Three birds came up to the snare; one in front, the others following. Such was their way, but when they came to a plain or open place they separated. When (the first) came to the snare, its neck was caught; the rope became taught, and the bird called out. Its cry was like that of the bittern, a kind of grunt. Another one was caught in the same manner, making two, and then their cries were so increased that they could be heard a long way off—it was like the noise of a pukaea (a trumpet). The third bird came up, when they all cried out together, whilst the third bird bit the rope so it parted; it did the same with the other, so that both ropes were severed, and away went the birds.

“The men then constructed another snare, with a spring, so that it should be low, in order that the body and one of its legs should be caught. In this way one was snared, but before the spring flew up, the rope was cut (bitten through) by the other birds, and the one caught escaped. On another occasion another snare was made, and a causeway built of wood, so the birds should climb up the snare being above. In this way a bird was caught with the legs upwards, so that the others could not cut the rope. The other birds did not move away from where their friend was caught. They would remain there three or four nights, and then go, leaving their friend in the snare.

“So Rua-kapanga and his friends went to have a look at the snare with ‘the Manu-whakatau’ in it. They fastened pieces of wood to each leg, which were about a fathom in length, and as thick as the - 58 calf of a man's leg. These pieces of wood were fastened with ropes and then attached to the body, and the base of the neck was fastened by four ropes. Thus they led it, one man in front, two behind, another by the side with the ropes. After cutting the rope off the snare (the spring) the bird came to the ground. Whilst it was suspended above on the snare, the kura, or red-feathers, were pulled out from its sides to be used as plumes, together with the tail feathers; there were twenty-four feathers in the tail, and two hundred from the sides of the two wings. The bird was thus led to the village, where everyone gathered to look at it. Then one man approached its side; he was a very tall man of the Rua-tamore hapu. (Here the reciter Apaapa-o-te-rangi said, ‘If I were to stand up and elevate my arm, that man would have been taller than the height of my body and arm. It was thus explained by the old men of the Whare-wānanga.’) The man's name was Rokuroku. When he got close to the side of the bird, it struck him with its left wing, and Te Rokuroku was killed right out. Then the bird was killed.

“The bird was called a ‘Kura-nui’ because of the kura, or red feathers, taken from its sides, the two hundred feathers mentioned, hence ‘Kura-nui.’ And because it was Rua-kapanga who first discovered this bird it was called “Te manu-o-Rua-kapanga’ (Rua-kapanga's bird). It was a very long time afterwards that the name Moa was heard of; it was not its original name; the only name it was known by at first was that given by its discoverer, ‘Te Manu-whakatau’ and ‘Kura-nui.’

“The reason that the Moa disappeared was this: when Tamatea 3 and the others arrived, he gave orders that the plains of the country should be burnt so that the land should be cleared. He said to the tribes, when they were travelling and came across clumps of bushes, etc., they should burn them lest they remained as refuges for reptiles (i.e., ngarara and moko-peke—lizards; taniwhas—monsters), etc. All men consented to do this when they travelled; and hence died the numerous reptiles of this island through fire; and also the bird, the ‘Kura-nui,’ which is called the Moa. It died in the lakes and swamps; they fled to the swamps to take refuge for fear of being burnt; they fled before the fierceness of the fires; they fled to the deep parts; they fell over cliffs and died. This is the cause of the death of the ‘Kura-nui,’ through the fires. Hence the tribes say: it was the fires of Tamatea-ariki that killed the ‘Kura-nui.’ It was not thought (in those times) that the so-called Moa would be exterminated by the fire; it was thought they would have fled to the forests and have dwelt - 59 there. When they were killed it was then understood that they were not forest-dwelling birds, but rather birds of the open and scrubby places. It was only when the Tawa, the Karaka, the Mataī, and the Pokaka, were in fruit, that they entered the forests to eat of those fruits. In the evenings they came forth from the forests to the open, and stayed by the sides of the streams, lakes, and swamps. They were not swimming birds; if they came to a deep part, they floated there and then died—such was the way of that bird.”

1   It may be noticed just here, that there are traditions about a great bird named Te Manu-nui-a-Rua-kapanga, known both to other Maoris and to Rarotongans. It is not quite consistent to say that this man discovered the Moa, and at the same time account for the southern part of the North Island not being inhabited by the tangata-whenua because of the Moa, the latter people being here long before Rua-kapanga.
2   Both names of reptile monsters.—See this Journal, Vol. XIV., p. 202, for an account of the last named of the two.
3   Tamatea-ariki-nui was the high chief of the migration that came here from Tahiti in the “Taki-timu” canoe, circa 1350, whilst Rua-kapanga and Toi-te-hua-tahi arrived about eight or nine generations previously.