By Guest Author 05/08/2016

by Julie Iles

New Zealand’s first chickens probably hitched a ride here on Captain James Cook’s ship Resolution, new research has found.

Radiocarbon dating of the chicken bones revealed an overlap between the bone and James Cook’s second voyage to New Zealand during 1773-1774.

The bones were sourced from three Maori midden sites, or refuse heaps, along the east coast of the South Island that were old enough to contain bones of moa, South Island adzebill and South Island goose, species that were later hunted to extinction.

Scientists from New Zealand and Australia analysed the bones using radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis and published their findings in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Despite being a bird sanctuary for millions of years, New Zealand was one of the last Pacific Islands to become a home to the chicken.

In Pacific Islands like New Zealand and Tonga, the presence of larger sources of prey, like the moa, megapode, and other larger birds contributed to the later introduction of chickens as a source of food.

Unimpressive birds

But Captain Cook’s journal from his second voyage gave little indication the chicken was an exciting novelty to the Maori.

In his journals of the voyage, Captain Cook recorded the unimpressed reactions of Maori chiefs and locals who received the hens and roosters as gifts. He noted of a local in the Cloudy Bay area, ‘he received these with such indifferency, as gave me little hopes that proper care would be taken of them.’

Tobias Furneaux who captained the second ship of Cook’s voyage, Adventure, was also known to have liberated chickens into the Marlborough Sounds. In his journals Cook wrote, “More Cocks and Hens are left behind than I know of as several of our people had of these as well as my self, some of which they put on shore and others they sold to the Natives, whom we found took care enough of them.”

What became of those chickens has never been established, though the recent findings suggest they were traded along with other European goods along the east coast of the South Island.
Medals that were gifted by Cook to Maori living in the Marlborough Sounds have also been discovered in sites of Maori settlement on the east coast of the South Island, suggesting Cook’s chickens and other cargo were rapidly integrated into Maori trade networks along the coast.

The coastal element of the samples was initially worrying to scientists.

An animal’s marine diet can introduce carbon into the bone samples that compromise radiocarbon results. However in the case of this study, the samples were found to be consistent with an entirely terrestrial diet, and thus unlikely to have been influenced by the marine reservoir effect.

Original origin unknown

A DNA analysis of the chicken bones was obtained from the two oldest chicken bones, but the sequences matched that of chickens found around the globe from Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and the Pacific, and so did not provide an indicator of the potential place of origin.

The chickens brought to New Zealand onboard Cook’s ship, Resolution also had unclear origins.

Cook wrote of the crew’s acquisition of chickens from the Cape Verde Islands, but the ship could have had the birds onboard as part of their initial cargo from England, or sourced them from stops in South Africa, Tahiti, or Tonga.