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Story: Kurī – Polynesian dogs

A vital source of protein and fur, the sturdy kurī was also a favoured pet of Māori chiefs. Ancient accounts tell of dogs turned to stone, ghostly barking, and supernatural beings in the form of kurī.

Story by Basil Keane
Main image: Stuffed kurī

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Kurī were a kind of dog that is now extinct. They were brought to New Zealand on canoes by the ancestors of Māori, who travelled from Polynesia in the 13th century.

The dogs were long-haired and quite small, with short legs and a bushy tail. Some were black, some white, and some a mixture of colours. They did not bark, but howled – the Māori word for the sound was ‘auau’.

Traditional stories

The guardian (deity or god) of kurī is Irawaru. The demigod Māui was angered at his laziness, and while he was snoring, Māui pulled his ears, nose and back into the shape of a dog.

It is said that the Polynesian explorer Kupe brought dogs with him to New Zealand, and left one dog waiting so long in Hokianga Harbour that it turned to stone. In another account, a dog jumped from the Tokomaru canoe at night, and guided it to New Zealand’s shores by howling.

Two stone kurī were said to haunt Lake Taupō. If people in canoes mistook their noise for real dogs and called out to them, a storm would arise and they would drown.

Uses

  • Kurī were an important food for Māori, who enjoyed the meat. The English explorer James Cook said it tasted as good as lamb.
  • Dog skins were used for cloaks, and the bones were made into fish hooks and necklaces. White dog hair was tied onto weapons, to distract an enemy as the weapon was moved.
  • Kurī were good hunters, catching kiwi, pūkeko and other birds.
  • The dogs were sacrificed in rituals to please the gods, and were sacred food for priests.

When did kurī die out?

It is unclear when kurī became extinct. They probably became rare through cross-breeding with dogs brought by Europeans from the early 1800s, and then disappeared altogether.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Kurī – Polynesian dogs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/kuri-polynesian-dogs (accessed 18 October 2017)

Story by Basil Keane, published 24 Nov 2008