NZ Biodiversity 3: Moa Hunting & Other Extinctions

Introduced by Leslie Clague

Part three of the Nelson Science Society talk by Jim Hilton has a closer look at mankind’s hunting habits and the fate of the Moa in New Zealand.

(For parts 1 and 2 see and

Pacific settlers slaughter Moa

By Jim Hilton

Wairau BarNew Zealand’s original capital was a village of eight to 15 hectares (30 acres) on the Wairau Bar near Blenheim (NZ’s Stonehenge). The latest large scale study was done there in 2010, looking at 44 ancient grave sites similar to villages in Polynesia.

At all the major river mouths in Canterbury and Otago were Moa “meat works” and “ovens”, where Moa were butchered, the bones smashed and the meat preserved in marrow fat. The method was much the same as oily mutton birds are preserved today. The preserved meat was transported by canoe back to the Stonehenge Village on the Wairau Bar.

Waitaki RiverAt the Waitaki River mouth, ovens 15 metres long, six metres wide and over a metre deep were estimated to contain the remains of 5,000 to 8,000 Moa. The meat works are estimated to have covered 120 hectares (300 acres) and contained at least 1200 ovens. I quote Quinn Berentson: “perhaps 100,000 Moa were butchered and cooked at this one camp alone, making it easily the largest prehistoric killing site in the world.”

The first of these Moa processing camps was discovered by early explorer Julius Haast near the present day settlement of Rakaia Huts, now a favourite haunt for salmon fishermen. “This huge site is thought to have once covered 80 hectares” (200 acres), Berentson reports.

Maori burn the forests and hunt Moa to extinction

Moa huntersMaori hunting parties obviously used rivers as highways into the Moa heartlands of Otago and Canterbury, as strings of ancient butchering and cooking sites have been discovered beside the rivers.

The Maoris were very efficient hunters. Using fire and dogs, they certainly burnt most of the dry forest on the eastern side of New Zealand. Moa quickly disappeared from the coastal plains and river valleys and never had a chance to repopulate.

Quinn Berentson describes it like this: “The hunters spread like a fire that swept through the Moa heartland, completely wiping out the birds in each area…. The speed at which Moa disappeared from around New Zealand was remarkable…. Within a few hundred years of human settlement Moa were extinct in most of New Zealand.” Europeans were not the first humans in New Zealand to “serially overkill” their food supply!

Over-killing the food supply world wide

Bison huntingTim Flannery describes this process in his 2001 book “The Eternal Frontier.” The American Indians killed off the woolly mammoths and European settlers killed the vast herds of bison from across North America. If Maori hadn’t wiped out our Moa, Europeans would have done it even faster; their superior technology (modern firearms) would have seen to that. No modern farmer puts up with large animals smashing his fences or interfering with his farming practices.

New Zealand is not the only country in the world to have lost many of its special wildlife from human invasion. Every part of the world had unique animals and birds. Many species have gone extinct and many others are not as common as they once were.

Australia has been occupied by humans for twice as long as Europe, probably 60,000 years. It managed to miss out on the ice ages. Australia has lost most of its megafauna (large animals), too. The indigenous humans in Australia were experts with fire, just like New Zealand’s first human inhabitants.

Europeans have introduced foreign species into other countries, too, just like we have done in New Zealand: deer, rabbits, rats, mice and stoats. But other countries do not use aerial poisons to “save” their remaining native species.

The fourth instalment of this series will look more specifically at bird extinctions as well as other causes besides hunting for their demise.


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