Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



The Moa Hunters

Maori material culture has evolved over two main periods of Polynesian settlement. The first is known as the Archaic or Moa Hunter period during which the Polynesians made their first contact with the moa, a large struthious bird which supplied them with abundant food. Actually, some of the species were relatively small. These Polynesians utilised the moa for food while from its bones they manufactured ornaments, fish hooks, bird spear points, and other items. Moas were killed by spears and traps. The Moa Hunters also appear to have eaten out the tuatara (Sphenodon) on the mainland, as evidenced by the number of lower jaws, mingled with moa remains, found in middens, at Purakanui, Otago, and elsewhere.

The earliest C.14 carbon dating for the settlement of man in New Zealand is approximately 1,000 years ago; but it is likely that future archaeological research will indicate earlier settlements. The first requirements of a primitive people landing in a new country are comparatively simple and in this order: food, clothing, and shelter. In New Zealand food would be immediately available and abundant, but the manufacture of warm garments and adequate means of obtaining shelter and warmth at night were problems which could be solved only over a period of time.

From evidence it would appear that as the first abundance of moa gradually declined in given places, the settlers then entered upon a more varied programme of fishing, fowling, and the collection of molluscs, etc. Gradually permanent or semi-permanent villages were established, giving a pattern of settlements around the coasts, often in the neighbourhood of inlets and on the banks of rivers. This pattern of settlement persisted with variations until European times. Various canoes arrived at intervals dating from the first arrivals; but Andrew Sharp (1957) believes that any landfall made in New Zealand would be a rare occurrence and would involve only small groups of Polynesians.

The Moa Hunter people were the great adze makers of New Zealand and nowhere else has such efficiency and perfection in adze making been achieved. The work of Duff (1956) has shed much new light on adzes and adze classification. Adzes were required primarily for the manufacture of canoes for transport by sea and along rivers.

Following East Polynesian models, Duff divides Moa Hunter adzes into six classes based on cross section. Classes “one” and “two” are quadrangular in cross section, the first being tanged or reduced above, while the second has only an incipient grip above. Classes “three” and “four” are triangular in section, class three being hafted with the apex of the triangle to the haft and four with the base of the triangle to the haft. “Five” is laterally hafted and “six” is circular sectioned and includes many chisel-type adzes.

The Moa Hunter people wore necklaces and pendants of drilled shark teeth, Carcharinus and Carcharodon, reels of ivory, shell, or stone, tubes of bird bone, sperm whale teeth, and porpoise teeth. A large sperm whale tooth or stone copy was used as a central pendant. In addition to these, Duff has found cloak pins, needles with case, tattooing chisel, stone fish-hook shanks as well as bone with points often drilled for attachment. Golson (1959) reviews other Moa Hunter or Archaic material including barbed points of composite fish hooks, lure hooks with stone and bone shanks, and the chevroned amulet and a patu. This period of material culture is remarkable for its lack of weapons.


William John Phillipps, formerly Registrar and Ethnologist, Dominion Museum, Wellington.

Next Part: Classic Period