During the first century or so after their arrival in New Zealand from Polynesia (around 1250–1300 CE), Māori extensively hunted moa as a ready source of food. Hundreds of archaeological sites ranging from single-kill locations to vast middens up to 100 hectares across have shown the great significance of moa in their diet. Moa bones were carved into fish hooks and pendants, and the skins and feathers were made into clothing.
In the archaeological record, Māori use of moa began about 650–700 years ago, but moa remains do not appear in middens later than 1550 CE. There have been a number of claimed historic sightings of the bird, but none stood up to scrutiny. Having survived in New Zealand for millennia, with only the giant eagle as a predator, moa were almost certainly extinct by the time of European colonisation in the early 1800s. Direct hunting and the modification of their habitat led to their rapid demise.
Perhaps because the bird had long disappeared, the name ‘moa’ does not appear to have been widely used by Māori by the time Europeans arrived, and there were few traditional stories about them. The name was first heard by the missionaries William Williams and William Colenso on the East Coast in January 1838, and thereafter became commonly used.
What’s the name?
In much of Polynesia domestic fowl are called moa, and large New Zealand moa may have got the name because, as missionary William Colenso suggested, they resembled an immense domestic fowl. The first name recorded for the bird in New Zealand transcribes as ‘movie’, and in 1912 a Māori chief, Urupeni Pūhara, was reported to say that the traditional name was ‘te kura’ (the red bird).
In the early 1830s the trader John W. Harris acquired a 15-centimetre bone fragment. In February 1837 he gave it to a Sydney surgeon, John Rule, with a note that it was from a giant bird called a ‘movie’. Rule took the bone to England, where it was examined by the naturalist Richard Owen in 1839. The following year, Owen proclaimed it to be the femur of a bird, ‘nearly, if not quite, equal in size to an ostrich’, and he appealed for further specimens. Before long they arrived – from William Williams and the naturalist Walter Mantell in particular. Owen coined the genus name Dinornis, meaning ‘prodigious’ or ‘terrible’, and moa came to be regarded as a scientific marvel, of interest to naturalists the world over. Moa bones were regularly exchanged for other items from overseas museums.
The fame of the moa and the fact that its size made it a world-beater gave it the brief status of national symbol briefly in the 19th century. In the 1890s, New Zealand was ‘the land of the moa’, and of 103 entries for a new national coat of arms in 1906–8, 28 included moa. Moa also featured on commercial logos, and in cartoons to represent New Zealand. Its iconic status did not last, however, and was soon replaced by the kiwi.
When in the 1940s the poet Allen Curnow called for a new national literature, he took as his symbol the skeleton of the great moa in the Canterbury Museum:
Taller but not more fallen than I, who come
Bone to his bone, peculiarly New Zealand’s. 1