Volume 46 1937 > Volume 46, No. 183 > Progress report on the excavation of a moa-hunters' camp at the mouth of the Tahakopa river, by David Teviotdale, p 134-153
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THIS camp is situated on the northern bank of the Tahakopa river, a short distance from where it enters the sea. The mouth of this river is a tidal estuary, several hundred yards in width and upwards of two miles in length. At low tide the river runs close to the left bank of the estuary and is steadily encroaching on the site of the encampment. It is impossible to estimate how much has been washed away, but oven-stones and debris extend well into the stream. Three large totara trees, each over two feet in diameter, lie uprooted in the water, while one of them, which has evidently fallen quite recently, is still growing with its roots attached to the bank, indicating that erosion has been recent and rapid. Here and there the middens show on the edge of the bank, which rises eight or ten feet above tide level and consists entirely of sand.

From the traffic-bridge at Papatowai, a road, locally known as the Sand road, runs down to the northern side of the river mouth. It has been cut through the bush at varying distances from the water's edge and, although unfit for motor traffic, it offers a very picturesque walk among large trees and ferns, where the commoner native birds—especially tuis and bellbirds—may be seen and heard. (See map.)

The existence of Maori sites in the district has long been known. The earliest published reference I have seen is by the late Sir Thomas Mackenzie. 1: “Many objects of interest are to be met with, not the least interesting being a very ancient Maori midden, where many years ago the - 135 Maoris, or their predecessors had thrown the refuse of their feasts. The heap contains immense quantities of shells, fish, bird, moa, human, and dog bones. All the large bones are broken. To give an idea of the antiquity of the deposit, I may mention that a totara tree, seven feet in circumference, has grown upon the deposit of mould formed above the midden and from below this tree I dug the jaw-bone of a dog, thus clearly showing that native dogs existed before Captain Cook's arrival. Totara trees are very slow growers. I also found some flint implements.”

In 1933 I made my first visit to the district in company with Mr. A. G. Hornsey, of Timaru. We were guided to the site by Mr. James Wilson, of Papatowai, who told us that moa bones had been found there by Mr. R. Findlater and himself. The former, whom we also met, gave me some of these bones.

Again, in 1934, Mr. Hornsey and I revisited the site in company with Mr. Wilson. On this occasion we obtained indisputable evidence of its having been a moa-hunters' encampment; but as our tools were unfitted to cope with the heavy growth of bush, we did not stay long at the work.

Later, Mr. Leslie Lockerbie, of McLennan, found a number of artifacts which had been exposed by the erosion of the river bank. These he generously presented to the Otago Museum, and the information provided by him decided the Museum authorities to excavate the site. In pursuance of this object I went there on 8th January, 1936, and stayed until 31st January. I was accompanied by Mr. Philip George, of Dunedin, and we were joined in the work by Mr. Lockerbie. The curator of the museum had applied to the Papatowai Scenic Board for permission to excavate at selected points on the reserve, and permission was courteously granted, subject to conditions safeguarding timber and the amenities of the reserve. The Board has thus made an important contribution to the progress of science.

To begin with, we dug over a large area of the debris washed out of the bank, finding a large number of quartzite and chert flakes, a sinker, a small greenstone chisel, a flake of a greenstone adze, and a small fragment of plain red pottery—probably a piece of an ordinary flower-pot. As - 136 the debris has all been sorted and deposited by water, no weight can be attached to finding this piece of pottery among Maori remains.

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As stated above, Maori midden deposit showed in various places along the edge of the bank, nowhere more than two feet in depth and usually less. The surface of the site was thickly covered with scrub and young totara trees, whose thick mat of roots made the work hard and tedious.

The moa-hunters' camp lies between the Sand road and the water's edge. With the object of preventing erosion by the high winds, we left a narrow strip of bush or scrub along the edge of the bank and commenced to excavate at trench 1 where Mr. Hornsey and I had worked in 1933. Where we commenced digging the deposit consists of a layer of cockle- and pipi-shells about two feet in depth, then a layer of black greasy soil containing oven-stones and ashes, below which is clean sea-sand.

Moa-bones occurred in all layers, including two large pelves in layer A just below the surface, and two in layer D. Tracheal rings, vertebrae, and joints of toes occurred in all layers., In layer B occurred two pelves and five pairs of tarsi heaped together. In another part of the same layer lay a group of leg-bones. Moa-bones were more numerous in layer B than in other layers. In this layer were found tabs of worked bone, a bone needle in its case, and a nearly circular scraper (fig. 26).
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At the northern end of our trench the sandy bottom dipped sharply and the black deposit got deeper. The trench was about three feet deep on the southern side, while at the northern side it reached a depth of seven feet, a typical section being shown in the diagram following the map. The layer of shells kept at an even depth of fully two feet while the deeper part of the black layer also contained occasional patches of shells. Moa-bones were found all through the deposit but they were more plentiful in the bottom layer. The pelves and other large bones were usually found in the bottom layer although they often appeared in the shell-deposit. Vertebræ, ribs, toe-joints, and tracheal rings were found all through the deposit, convincing proof that the whole belonged to the moa-hunter period. Most of the artifacts and fragments of bone for manufacturing purposes were found in the shell-layer. In the black lower deposit were flakes of chert, quartzite, and a fine-grained basalt. These flakes had probably been used for knives to cut up the bodies of the moas. Just below the shells on the surface of the black layer Mr. George found a very fine polished scraper (fig. 26) made of fine-grained basalt. Among the shells were many fragments of moa-bone and although the majority were roughly broken pieces, a large number of them represented all stages of fish-hook manufacture and many had been broken in the process of drilling. In the same layer we found one complete simple, or one-piece, hook (fig. 18) and several fragments of other one-piece hooks and many files, cutters, and polishers of schist and sandstone.

Well down in the black layer Mr. Lockerbie found a heap of moa-bones consisting of two pelves and ten tarsus-bones, and nearby I found the leg-bones of several moas heaped together. From a space twelve feet wide and seventeen feet in length we unearthed eighteen moa-pelves of two different sizes. They were very fragile and we did not succeed in getting any of them out unbroken. Leg-bones were numerous but many of these were broken—especially the tibiæ, which, in many cases, had little left except the ends. The unbroken leg-bones found in this area comprised eight femurs, three tibiæ, and eighteen tarsi of moas. Seal-bones, some of them very large, were often found lying with the moa pelves, while here and there were little groups of - 139 small bones, usually the wing-bones of some medium-sized bird. The long, stout wing-bones so common on Maori camp-sites near Dunedin were absent. Two kakapo-beaks completed the list of our findings here.

As we extended our trench toward the road, the sandy bottom rose until the black layer was only a few inches in thickness and as it contained nothing but a few oven-stones and an occasional moa-bone, we did not lift this black layer but only dug through it here and there.

At one spot, close to the road, where an area of this black layer was tramped hard and firm, we found several moa-bone points of composite hooks of various types, a long needle-shaped pendant, some small adzes, more or less damaged, and three pointed pickers or threaders of bird-bone (one of these contained a small but very well made bone needle), a number of flattened or drilled tabs of moa-bone, some sandstone cutters and polishers and many rough, broken fragments of moa-bone. On the northern side of this area, Mr. George found a large moa-bone point of a composite hook (fig. 8) while on the southern edge, Mr. Lockerbie unearthed a much larger point of similar shape (fig. 7). The deposit, which was about eighteen inches deep over this firm area, consisted of cockle, mussel, pipi, and paua shells, fish-bones and scales as well as some snapper jaw-bones and a few bird- and seal-bones. In the shell-deposit were moa pelves and ribs, toe-joints and vertebræ, and several ends of leg-bones, the shafts of which had been broken out and used for manufacturing purposes. Many of the artifacts were lying on the firm floor, but the majority were found among the shells.

On the northern side of our excavation a sandhill rose abruptly and here a thin layer of sand lay between the shells and the black deposit. The bottom dipped until the black deposit was nearly three feet deep but it contained nothing but a few oven-stones, and the shell-deposit gave out completely on this side. The shell-layer continued under the road and we worked in as far as we could without damaging the roadway. Here, Mr. George found a medium-sized greenstone adze (fig. 27) in good order.

On the southern side of our trench the two layers gave out against clean sand. Near the outer edge of the shell-deposit we found an unfinished one-piece hook and

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fragments of several others, all made of moa-bone. Mr. George found an unfinished one-piece hook (fig. 16) made of whale's bone which had been manufactured, not by drilling as were the moa-bone hooks, but by pecking or gouging. Two very large quartzite flakes lying beside the lower jaw-bone of an elephant seal were found on the sand below the midden-deposit. In the deposit itself were two moa pelves, many vertebræ, toe-joints, and the ends of several leg-bones, the shafts of which had been broken up for manufacturing purposes. In the bottom layer two unbroken moa femurs and some quartzite flakes were found.

As the road prevented further excavation here, we returned to the river bank, where we commenced another trench (trench 2) about thirty feet to the southward of our first excavation. On the northern side of this trench there was a shallow deposit of shells connecting with our first trench. As the layer was almost barren of curios and we were anxious not to destroy more of the vegetation than was necessary, we did not connect with no. 1 trench but carried on parallel with it toward the road. On the southern side the bottom dipped and then rose again, forming a small hollow. Here the deposit consisted of a layer of shells above a black loamy deposit, the depth of the two being nearly five feet. Moa- and seal-bones were found all through it, but were more numerous in the black deposit.

We found, unbroken, seven moa femurs, seven moa tarsi, and one tibia, also three moa pelves and three crania, all of ordinary size. One of the femurs and two of the tarsi were much larger than any others found and appear to be bones of Dinornis ingens, one of the largest species of moa. Underneath one pelvis was a small quantity of moa egg-shell. Mr. George obtained from this trench a one-piece fish hook (fig. 19), a quartzite drill-point and a very fine tab of moa-bone the centre of which had been drilled out (fig. 14). Mr. Lockerbie unearthed a good black stone adze, while I got a long curved pendant made of a rib, a schist file or rubber, and two hammer-stones. These stones are pebbles of the same variety as those commonly used as hammers at the Foveaux straits camp-sites. I also found a thin circular piece of sandstone slightly polished on each face (fig. 8) and a small piece of whale's bone - 146 (fig. 29) worked to the shape of a small cork. I cannot suggest a use for either of these pieces.

The deposit here very much resembled that in no. 1 trench. It lay on a steep slope, the lower part containing most of the large moa- and seal-bones, while the majority of the artifacts were in the upper layer of shells. Gradually the deposit became shallower and barren of curios.

In the centre of this midden was a dead broadleaf tree whose fallen trunk, which was fully two feet in diameter, was in an advanced stage of decay. In the ring formed by the decaying roots of the tree a totara tree was growing. Both had grown after the midden had been abandoned. The advanced stage of decay of the broadleaf tree and the size of the totara, which was about four inches in diameter and over twelve feet in height, would indicate that the midden was of some antiquity.

When we had worked out this spot, I searched round for some time and found a midden about eighty yards south-west of the two trenches. It lay along the foot of a sandy slope and in places it was fully three feet in depth consisting wholly of shells—mostly cockle and pipi. There were many paua shells, usually in groups and often placed one within the other. Some of these paua shells were very large. Mixed with the shells were a few seal, dog, bird and fish-bones, and scales, and a kakapo-beak. There were also many fragments of broken moa-bones suitable for manufacturing purposes, tabs in various stages of manufacture, a few showing the marks of drilling, several drill-points of moa-bone, a few fish-hook points, polishing-stones or files, and several adzes of common stone; all the adzes were more or less damaged. In this midden there was no indication of the moa having been used for food, although suitable bones had been freely used for manufacture.

In the clean sand below the shell-deposit, in some places separated from the shells by a thin band of clean sand, were several patches of moa-bones mixed with a few pipi shells and some oven-stones. I here obtained two moa pelves, a number of toe-joints and vertebræ, one moa-skull with upper and lower mandible, another without the beak, and a number of leg-bones. Although many of the leg-bones were broken, I secured four tibiæ, one femur, and two tarsi bones which were intact. In one spot Mr. Lockerbie - 147 found a small heap of moa egg-shell. A few feet from this I found two similar heaps about twelve inches apart. I think that each of these heaps would comprise the greater part of an egg. There were also a number of pieces of what appeared to be moa-droppings, part of a dog's skull, the skull of a large seal, and some seal-bones. With the last-mentioned were a number of flakes of brown chert, but there were no other implements. Between the heaps of egg-shell and the layer of sea-shells was about six inches of clean sand. The whole of the lower deposit in this midden appeared to have no connection with the upper layer, which, as stated above, contained no moa-bone except pieces suitable for manufacture.

The thick bush and scrub made it very difficult to trace accurately the position of the smaller features of the landscape. The site of our first trench appeared to be on a small sandy spur with a gully or hollow between it and a much higher sandhill. This little gully extended in an easterly direction across the Sand road and joined a larger hollow in the bush. It did not connect with the river at its western end but the larger gully ran in a southerly direction to the river's mouth.

The small hollow had been filled with debris from the operations of the moa-hunters, who apparently have worked on the top of the small ridge and thrown the waste material into the hollow. This would account for the depth recorded.

Evidently the lowest deposit was offal from the moas; but later the hunters had cooked enormous quantities of shell-fish as well as the giant birds. As the number of moas in a confined space such as this estuary would not be large, it is likely that the stores of moa-flesh would be increased by cooking and preserving shell-fish.

In his manuscript, “The Voyage of the Acheron,” 2 Captain Stokes gives a description of the Maori method used to preserve the flesh of the weka. After removing the bones, they placed the flesh on a platter, covered it with hot stones and left it until it was cooked. It was then packed into bags made from seaweed and the fat left by the cooking was poured on top of the flesh. The writer further states that fish and seal-flesh were preserved in a like manner - 148 and that train-oil was used to cover the flesh. This method kept the food in good order for two years.

The presence of seal-bones in close proximity to those of the moa in these middens indicates that both creatures were secured at the same time by the Maori, and it is likely that seal-oil would be used in the preservation process of the meat of both. It is possible, too, that the long tibiæ of the moas were broken to facilitate the extraction of the marrow or oil for this purpose.

As there is no fresh water on the north side of the river-mouth it is not likely that the natives would have had a permanent camp there. On the other side of the river are several small creeks, one of which has a good steady flow of water and is now a favourite camping-place for picnic parties and tourists. At intervals along this south-west side of the river are midden-heaps indicating old camp-sites, and although we were told of other shell-heaps in the bush we did not have time to visit them.

On a day when frequent showers of rain prevented us from working in the open, Mr. George and I excavated the floor of a small cave. This contained a deposit of pipi-and cockle-shells about eighteen inches deep over an area of about fifteen feet in length and ranging from twelve feet in width at the entrance to three feet at the inner end. As we found no artifacts, it is probable that this cave was only an occasional camping-place.

On the seaward side of the Sand road, Mr. Lockerbie showed us various places in the bush where there were deposits of shells. We worked on one of these deposits (trench 4) which contained seal-bones and a quantity of broken moa leg-bones mixed with a smaller deposit of shells. Mr. George found two broken adzes here, whilst Mr. Lockerbie found a curious implement made from a seal's fibula. It is probably a maripi used for detaching paua from the rocks. We prospected one or two other spots in the bush, but unfortunately we had not enough time to do systematic work.

There was an almost total absence of the long, slender bird-bones (commonly called albatross-bones) which are so common on camp sites near Dunedin. This is strange, as fishermen at Tautuku, only a few miles away, told me that they had difficulty when fishing in preventing the albatrosses - 149 from taking their baited hooks. Bones of smaller birds were fairly plentiful and occasionally we found the wing-bones in little heaps. We obtained several wing-bones pointed to form threaders or pickers, and inside one of these pointed bones was the small, neat, and well-made needle already mentioned. I have recorded finding similar bones, which have been used as needle-cases, at the Shag river-mouth and at Little Papanui on Otago Peninsula (J.P.S., vol. 33, p. 19).

A noticeable feature of the fish-hook points found here is that all are unbarbed. Among the artifacts presented by Mr. Lockerbie to the Otago Museum are two stone fish-hook shanks. These were found on the tidal flat among the debris sorted by the tide. In our excavations we found several of the curved bone points that are usually found in company with the stone or bone shanks (J.P.S., vol. 38, p. 270). As drilling was the usual method of manufacturing one-piece hooks, it was to be expected that stone drill-points would be plentiful. Strangely enough they were very scarce; we found only one. This contrasts strongly with the Shag river camp where I obtained upwards of 400 stone drill-points (J.P.S., vol. 36, p. 183). Drill-points made of moa-bone were found on both sites but were more numerous, in proportion to the area of the camp, at Tahakopa than at the Shag river.

Two very sharp points of moa-bone (figs. 25 and 26) which we unearthed, are too finely pointed to be drill-points and were probably used as awls.

We found only two pieces of obsidian, both in the tide-washed area, and three pieces of greenstone, two of which were in the tidal area. Kokowai was scarce also, two pieces only being found in the middens.

In the deepest part of our trench (about seven feet) the formation from the surface was as follows: a shell layer, a deeper layer of black sandy earth containing oven-stones and charcoal, a thin layer of sand, and finally, a thin layer of shells over the sand bottom. In all these layers were moa-bones. There was a large moa-pelvis among the shells just below the surface and two moa-pelves were on the sandy bottom with a flake of reddish chert beside them. Although this red chert is quite common here, I met no one who had seen it in situ in the district. Quartzite - 150 flakes were not as common as this reddish chert but thin sharp-edged flakes of a very fine-grained basalt were plentiful. These, probably, were used as knives and they would be quite as effective as either the chert or the quartzite ones.

The unbroken leg-bones of the moas found by us comprised 21 femurs, 8 tibiæ, and 29 tarsi making a total of 58. The total number of objects found by our party of sufficient importance to be registered was 329. The principal items are as follow:

  • 4 unbroken adzes
  • 2 unbroken chisels
  • 1 greenstone adze
  • 1 greenstone chisel
  • 4 sinkers
  • 15 drill points of moa-bone
  • 1 quartzite drill point
  • 9 bird bone “pickers”
  • 1 bone mat pin
  • 1 pendant (?) made of seal's rib
  • 1 implement made of seal's fibula
  • 1 needle in case
  • 1 cube of ivory
  • 1 disc of sandstone
  • 1 basalt scraper
  • 1 sandstone cutter
  • 2 one-piece hooks
  • 1 unfinished one-piece hook
  • 1 pecked tab of whale's bone
  • 2 drilled tabs of moa-bone
  • 9 fragments of one-piece hooks
  • 2 points of composite hooks made of whale's bone
  • 4 points of composite hooks made of moa-bone
  • 4 barracouta hook points (these are notched to be tied to the shank)

The remainder of the objects are hammer-stones, polishers, cutters, tabs of cut and smoothed moa-bone, and parts of tabs which have been broken in the process of drilling. Two pieces of moa-bone appear to be fragments cut from a larger piece by drilling instead of sawing, a feature I have not noticed on other sites. Sandstone polishers, cutters, etc., were very plentiful and I brought only the better ones away. As noted above, the adzes were nearly all broken.

The unfinished one-piece hook of whale's bone had been made by chipping or pecking while the moa-bone examples were drilled. At Pahia, near Orepuki, I obtained similar specimens together, which shows that the two methods were in use at the same time. Two points of composite hooks were also made of whale's bone.

While digging, Mr. George found, in the upper layer of shells, part of the lower jaw-bone of a small animal. It was not known to any of our party. One evening when - 151 returning to the boarding-house, he found a similar, but slightly larger specimen. Knowing there are various vague legends among the Murihiku Maoris of a small animal of the otter or beaver family said to have frequented Southland rivers in ancient times, I had visions of a new discovery in New Zealand natural history. However, the bones were identified by Dr. W. B. Benham as belonging to opossums, animals that are plentiful in the surrounding bush. This shows the care that it is necessary to exercise when excavating, as the first piece was found among the shells a few inches from the surface. It may have been carried there by a rat or driven down by a blow from an axe or pick while we were clearing the vegetation off the site.

The moa-bones recovered from the site were sent by rail to the Otago Museum where they were cleaned and then sent to Dr. W. R. B. Oliver, Director of the Dominion Museum, for determination. Dr. Oliver reported (21/12/36) that a few of the bones were not quite typical of the species diagnosed, but this was probably due to his having used the figures of earlier observers. “The following are the species represented from Tahakopa with the least number of individuals present:

Dinornis maximus 1
Dinornis ingens 2
Dinornis novae zelandiae 1
Anomalopteryx didiformis 3
Anomalopteryx parvus 1
Emeus crassus 3
Emeus casuarinus 1
Eurapteryx ponderosus 3
Eurapteryx gravipes 6

The present paper is a progress-report. Since it was written additional excavation has been carried out and some interesting new material has been recovered. Further work will be done, and final results will be published in a second paper.

The culture revealed is that of the Maori, and there is no suggestion of any other. The greater part of the deposits excavated are of moa-hunter age, the objects found being in many cases virtually identical with objects of the same period from the Waitaki mouth, the Shag river mouth, - 152 and Little Papanui. The only deposit which appeared to be of later date than moa-hunters was a thick deposit of shells in no. 3 trench. The material secured from this included fish-hook points, flakes, small adzes, and fragments of worked moa-bone. The evidence indicating that this deposit was of later date than the rest was the complete absence of moa skulls, pelves, vertebræ and other bones useless in the manufacture of implements, and also moa egg-shell. The implements found in the deposit cannot be distinguished from those found in deposits of moa-hunter age.


My thanks are due to the Papatowai Scenic Board and to the other persons already mentioned, and to Miss Daff who has made all the drawings accompanying this paper, and to Mr. L. Lockerbie for the plan of the locality.


Diagram map of site of the encampment. The area crosshatched is the deepest part of the excavations.


FIG. 1. Stone shank of composite hook. Material, clayey slate. Otago University Museum, D. 35.534.

FIG. 2. Bone point usually associated with these stone shanks. O.U.M. D. 36.186.

FIG. 3. Stone fish-hook shank made of tangiwai and has been burnt. These shanks were found in the tide-washed area by Mr. Leslie Lockerbie, of McLennan. O.U.M. D. 35.535.

FIGS. 4, 5 and 6. Bone fish-hook points used on the stone shanks. Fig. 5 is made of whale's bone, figs. 4 and 6 of moa-bone. O.U.M. D. 36.190, D. 36.194, D. 36.188.

FIGS. 7, 8, 9 and 10. Moa-bone points of composite hooks. O.U.M. D. 36.192, D. 36.185, D. 36.191, D. 36.124.

FIGS. 11, 12 and 13. Moa-bone points of barracouta fish-hooks. These appear to have been tied to the wooden shanks. O.U.M. D. 36.184, D. 36.178, D. 36.189.

FIGS. 14, 15. Tabs of moa-bone flattened and drilled in process of manufacturing one-piece, or simple hooks. O.U.M. D. 36.160, D. 36.159.

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FIG. 16. Tab of whale's bone in process of manufacture of one-piece fish-hook but made by pecking instead of drilling. This shows that the two methods were contemporaneous. At Pahia, near Orepuki, I found a hook-maker's workshop where both methods had been in use. O.U.M. D. 36.162.

FIGS. 17, 18 and 19. One-piece fish-hooks of moa-bone. O.U.M. D. 36.193, D. 36.164, D. 36.163.

FIGS. 20, 21, 22 and 23. Drill-points of moa-bone. O.U.M. D. 36.172, D. 36.351, D. 36.170, D. 36.169.

FIGS. 24 and 25. Very finely pointed implements made of moa-bone, probably awls. O.U.M. D. 36.174, D. 36.175.

FIG. 26. Scraper made of fine-grained basalt. O.U.M. D. 36.47.

FIG. 27. Greenstone adze. O.U.M. D. 36.71.

FIG. 28. Circular object of sandstone, use unknown. O.U.M. D. 36.45.

FIG. 29. Object made of whale's bone, use unknown. O.U.M. D. 36.178.

1   Otago Daily Times, January 30th, 1889. Sir Thomas Mackenzie has a later reference to the site (Otago Witness, April 2nd, 1896), and it has often been referred to in conversation by the late Sir Frederick Chapman.
2   Hocken Library.