Moa and Maori dogs – lessons for modern ecological life

By Lynley Hargreaves 24/09/2014


Dr Priscilla Wehi
Dr Priscilla Wehi

As a zoologist living within a Māori community, Dr Priscilla Wehi became interested in the ecological information contained in Māori oral tradition. When she discovered a potentially new approach to exploring ecology by dating ancestral sayings, or whakataukī, she and Hēmi Whaanga at the University of Waikato developed a group. Their work on whakataukī has created an exciting window into past events such as the extinction of moa. Now the researcher – based at Landcare Research in Dunedin – is doing Marsden-funded research on a more recently absent species, the kurī or Māori dog.

Why were kurī important for Māori?

Kurī have been an integral part of Māori culture for hundreds of years – as a source of protein, and because the skins could be made into beautiful cloaks. They were also companion and hunting animals for Māori. But the kurī disappeared in the 1860s or 1870s, probably hybridised with European dogs. I want to explore how that loss occurred by thinking about how culture interacts with ecology, using different methods. For example, I will investigate how kurī diet changed over time – to see if they became more feral after European arrival. But it may also be the case that kurī were becoming less common before Europeans arrived, especially if foods with high protein were becoming scarce.

It is also clear there was a maelstrom of differing cultural attitudes in 19th century. Sheep farming became important economically. In early newspapers, there are many complaints over dogs harassing sheep, and complaints from town people in town about ‘mongrel’ dogs running wild. I have been surprised by the extent of negative cultural attitudes to kuri and dogs more generally in newspapers of the time. In whakataukī kurī are more highly regarded.

Are whakataukī a useful window into Māori thinking?

Māori culture has a strongly developed tradition of oral literature. Whakataukī are ancestral sayings that are a type of ‘blueprint for life’. They transmit critical information about aspects of life and society. Kurī pop up in whakataukī, and we want to really unpack those whakataukī about kurī and understand how people saw kurī. We also want to know if those views changed through time.

We are very lucky to have Tom Roa as part of our team. Both Tom and Hēmi are linguists, and expert at analyzing language patterns. Matua Tom is very experienced at looking at older Māori texts. If you imagine how English has changed since the time of Chaucer, or Shakespeare, with the vocabulary and structure altering over time, you can imagine how that might be true for the Māori language. We can tell which whakataukī are probably from the early European period, because the structure and language in the sayings are more European in form. Tom’s task is to try and estimate dates for a range of whakataukī by examining how the language has changed, so we can then investigate how thinking changed over time. We are also lucky to have Murray Cox, a bioinfomatician, as part of the team. He applies a range of very sophisticated techniques to the analysis of our language data.

How did Māori environmental attitudes change over time?

There are lots of ecological observations about different species in early whakataukī, which is what you might expect when a people arrive in a new country or environment (eg. about the habits of snapper or other fish). As settlement progressed, we think more ancestral sayings appear that link species and ecological processes, such as tui feeding on harakeke nectar. We want to look at patterns in the whakataukī that might show us how resource use in society develops, and becomes more structured over time. An example of this could be where valuable resources, such as fish on a particular reef, are looked after by a particular group. The final stage is understanding how resource management can influence the environment.

Because many species in New Zealand became extinct after humans arrived, we particularly want to know how people reacted to extinctions, and how did kaitiakitanga develop? Māori use many methods, such as rāhui, to protect resources today, to try and ensure these resources remain in good health for future generations. We want to track the development of some of these methods if we can.

What do whakataukī say about extinctions?

We know from the whakataukī that people did take note of some extinctions – there are a lot of ancestral sayings about moa and their extinction. This gives us evidence that moa extinction was important culturally. When we look at the whakataukī relating to moa, the early sayings describe ecological features of moa. We also see some that are connected to human culture – such as the use of koromiko, a common shrub, for cooking moa. But we haven’t yet found any sayings about ways that moa were managed in their environments by people. This could relate to the biology of moa. Moa were long lived and may take many years to reproduce, so it could be a case of not knowing enough until it was too late. Moa probably disappeared a mere 150-200 years after Māori arrived. On the other hand, there may be other forms of oral tradition that tell stories about moa that we have not yet tracked down.

What lessons do whakataukī contain for the modern world?

The world is in ecological crisis, right here, right now. We want to gain information from every source possible that will help us protect our species and ecosystems and slow down the rate of extinctions. Understanding indigenous knowledge, and how society and ecology interact, will give us new ways to fight the extinction crisis.

What is particularly interesting, and has been a new approach in this work, is looking at how ecological knowledge develops over time, and how conservation is affected by changes in society. We are determined to find out how we can learn from our past mistakes. We ask this so so that we can better protect what we have left.

These interviews showcase researchers supported by the Marsden Fund which, since 1994, has been supporting fundamental, investigator-led research in New Zealand.