Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 24, July 1980

By Gary Staples

The large finds of Moa remains have generally been made on the east coast of the South Island but remains have been found at Opito, Coromandel Peninsula and in caves at Waitomo. When thinking of Moas most people visualise the giant species and of Maoris hunting them. The largest species, the Dinornis Maximus, probably over 12 feet high, was almost extinct before the arrival of man to New Zealand. By the time the latter "Fleet" Maoris arrived all species were extinct except perhaps the smallest, the Megalapteryx, and this survived only in a remote valley of the South Island.

For many years school text books taught that prior to the coming of the "Fleet" Maoris New Zealand was inhabited by the Morioris. We were led to believe they were a different race than the Maori, possibly of Melanesian origin. Discoveries of the bones of the earliest human beings in New Zealand, made at Wairau Boulder Bank in 1939, showed that the ancient settlers of New Zealand were certainly Polynesian, just like the Maoris. As other bones dug up in their camp showed, they lived here when there were Moas, swans, eagles and other birds which died out hundreds of years ago. These early people were descendants of KUPE and it is now general to refer to them as the Moa Hunters, the term Moriori being reserved for that branch of the descendants who became isolated in the Chatham Island.

The Moas hunted by these people were a smaller bird than we generally think of. The Euryapteryr was common and stood about 4' 6" and the Emeus of a similar height was less common. Whilst smaller than the Dinornis Maximus, whose leg bones were more massive than a draught horse, these "small" species were very valuable to the Moa Hunters who used the flesh for meat, bones for implements and ornaments and skins and feathers for cloaks.

The oldest known Moa remains were found near Timaru in 1889. They were 75 feet beneath the surface below a larva flow. This indicated their age to be between 2,000,000 and 7,000,000 years. The Moas have been in this country a long time and those hunted by the Moa Hunter were the end of a dying race. Climatic changes probably brought about the extinction of the Moas, with the Moa Hunter merely finishing off the species. A strongly flourishing species of animal can rarely be wiped out by primitive man.

The Moa Hunter Maoris obviously had no enemies and it is clear they were not cannibals because among the thousands of bones of birds, dogs, seals, fish and whales left in their ovens there are no bones from human beings. No stone clubs have been found. Their villages were open and unfortified. The bones at Opito were discovered in 1850 in midden refuse adjacent to an oven dug into the ground. Such discoveries in the North Island are very rare although the remains of Moas who died naturally are known, e.g. Waitomo Caves and caves around Lake Waikaremoana. It is thought that the Moa was almost already extinct in the North Island even before the arrival of the early Maori, 950 A.D. The name Moa was applied to the domestic fowl throughout Polynesia and the early Maori, not having domestic fowl, applied the spare name to the large bird they found in New Zealand.

Research on Moas and Moa Hunters has been considerable and a number of comprehensive books, written. These include "Moas and Moa Hunters" an easily readable booklet of 36 pages by Roger Duff; "The Moa Hunter Period of Maori Culture" Roger Duff. A detailed text book of some 400 pages.