Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/March 1887/The Giant Birds of New Zealand



THE discovery of the Dinornis by the illustrious zoölogist, Richard Owen, is famous as one of the most notable feats in the history of science. From a single imperfect bone, a femur broken at both ends, he deduced the fact that an enormous bird of the Struthious order, but far exceeding the ostrich in size, formerly inhabited New Zealand. This discovery, published in 1839, aroused much interest, and led to further inquiry. Four years later, Owen was able to show, from the comparison of many fragments of skeletons which had reached him, that there had been at least six species of these gigantic birds. With additional materials, in 1850, he had increased the number of species to eleven, classed in three genera, and varying in size from a kind no larger than the great bustard (or about five feet high) to one—the Dinornis giganteus—at least ten feet in height. Still later researches have shown that even this stature was in some instances surpassed, and that birds must have existed in New Zealand whose height attained fourteen feet, or twice that of the largest ostrich.

When Owen's first paper on this subject was published, the only white residents in New Zealand were a few missionaries and traders. Since then it has become one of the most flourishing of British colonies, especially distinguished for the educated intelligence of its people. Several scientific associations exist among them, whose members pursue with zeal their researches into the natural history of their islands. These huge extinct birds were, of course, among the first subjects of investigation; and soon a decided and very remarkable difference of opinion appeared. It was known from the first that the native inhabitants were accustomed to speak of these birds under the designation of moa, the name that in the other islands of Polynesia, from the Navigator group to Hawaii, was applied to the common domestic fowl, which was not known in New Zealand. The first inquirers, including Owen's missionary correspondents, had assumed, as a matter of course, that the Dinornis had existed in very recent times, and perhaps was not even yet extinct. But a class of skeptical investigators arose, who took a very different view. The leader of this school was Mr. (now Sir Julius) Haast, a distinguished geologist and naturalist, the author of a valuable work on the "Geology of the Provinces of Canterbury and Westland," and of many other treatises, in which, admitting the coexistence of man and the moas at a very remote period, answering to our prehistoric time—as man and the mammoth are known to have existed together in Europe—he denies that the present race of Maoris had ever known those great birds. In his view these creatures represented in New Zealand the gigantic quadrupeds which inhabited the northern hemisphere during the Post-pliocene or Quaternary period. If any of them survived that epoch, they had become extinct at an early day, and long before the ancestors of the modern Maoris had found their way to New Zealand.

Mr. Haast's view had in itself a certain plausibility, and it was maintained by himself and his followers with much firmness against many objectors, who brought forward a strong array of facts on the opposite side. The controversy has at length drawn the attention of one of the most eminent of European zoologists, Professor de Quatrefages. In an elaborate and very interesting paper on "Moas and Moa-Hunters," which has recently appeared, he sums up the controversy with judicial thoroughness, reviewing carefully all the published data, from the time of Owen to the latest contribution to the "Transactions of the New Zealand Institute," and comes to the conclusion that the earlier inquirers were right, and that Mr. Haast's view, in the form in which he proposes it, can not be sustained.[1] Indeed, the mere facts themselves, as they are set forth in this admirably lucid exposition, are overwhelming in their force, while the scientific skill with which they are marshalled, and the wealth of illustration which enforces the conclusions, are such as might be expected from the accomplished author.

He shows that many eggs and fragments of eggs of the moas have been discovered; that many feathers belonging to different species of these birds and to various parts of the body have been gathered in different places; and that even portions of the skeleton have been found which had muscles, tendons, and pieces of skin still adhering, with some feathers, all in a remarkable state of preservation. Nor were these preserved in ice, like the Siberian mammoth; they had simply been dried in the sand, and the bones had not been in the slightest degree mineralized. Further, the traditions of the natives about these birds are perfectly clear. They describe their size, their shape, their habits, and the manner in which they were hunted. The native proverbs refer to them. It was the habit of the male and female of these birds to go constantly together, and the Maoris speak of fighting "two against two, like the moas." They had a particular kind of obsidian knife, which they used in cutting up these birds at their feasts. The prayers or incantations which they were accustomed to recite before setting out on a moa-hunt are still remembered. Such a hunt was a serious undertaking, for the monstrous game could crush a man with one blow of the foot. The very paths which were made by the birds through the mountain thickets, and beside which the hunters were accustomed to lie in wait for them, can still be plainly traced. Furthermore, Mr. J. W. Hamilton published, in 1875, in the "Transactions of the New Zealand Institute," his notes of a conversation held in 1844 with an aged Maori, who, as he remembered Cook, must have been then more than seventy-five years old. He had seen a moa, and described it with all the minute precision of personal knowledge. Finally, if these statements should be questioned, we have the decisive fact that the remains of the great feasts of the natives, which have been found in several places, show the bones of the moa mingled with those of the native dog. Now, the New Zealand dog is the Polynesian variety, used only for food; and the traditions of the natives are quite clear as to the fact that their ancestors, when they came to the country some four or five centuries ago, brought the dog with them.

M. de Quatrefages shows, however, that Mr. Haast's opinions have some foundation, though not precisely in the sense intended by him. Of the eleven species of moa, one, and this the largest of all, the Dinornis giganteus, seems to have been extinct before the advent of the Maoris. At least this is the inference which may be drawn from the fact that none of the bones of this species have been found among the remains of their feasts. Of the next in size, the Dinornis robustus, which was but slightly less in stature, the remains have only once been found in this position; and those of the huge Palapteryx ingens have been thus discovered in only three instances. It would seem, therefore, that the largest of these creatures were either extinct or dying out when man appeared on the scene; but this appearance, it must be remembered, was a very recent event. The result is, that Mr. Haast's view can only be sustained by reforming his geologic chronology, or rather nomenclature—at least, for New Zealand—and bringing the Post-pliocene era down to our own times. And this conclusion suggests a consideration of much larger import. If so good a geologist as Mr. Haast has been at fault in regard to the antiquity of the moa, may not other able geologists, who have supposed that the mammoth, the cave-bear, and other extinct animals—the contemporaries of the Cro-Magnon artists who depicted them with such life-like exactness—died out at a period long prior to the historic era, be equally mistaken? There seems no more reason for doubting that the last surviving Elephas primigenius may have been killed by some bold hunters of the Cro-Magnon race, in the time of one of the early Pharaohs, than there is for questioning the fact that the last Dinornis was killed by the Maori hunters in the reign of George III.

  1. "Les Moas et les Chasseurs de Moas," par M. A. de Quatrefages, pp. 43.