A Feast of Moa

steve-moa-boneWe always knew the deep oven pit filled with bones was going to yield a few surprises, but even the experienced archaeologists here at Wairau Bar were amazed at what lay at the bottom of it. Last  time I updated you about Area #4, we were digging through the top layer of broken bone fragments, dense with the discarded scraps of 700-year old feasting. All the bones we were finding had been smashed, or broken open to get at the nutritious marrow inside, or snapped to make artifacts like the Haast’s Eagle bones.  As the hole got deeper, the “rubbish” got denser and more full of interesting things, to the point where it was just solid bone and shells without any soil in it at all – and everything started to get bigger.


Even the shellfish were huge – I’m a big fan of mussels, and I’ve never seen anything like the shells we were finding  :


Apparently all the locals know that when a big southerly storm hits, these enormous mussels (which must be a different species to the normal green-lipped ones we normally eat)  wash up on the beach and there’s a free feed to be had. The early people of Wairau Bar certainly knew this, and obviously feasted on a lot of other kinds of shellfish as well, like pipis, paua and cockles, many of them quite a lot bigger than than ones we see today.

shell-pile We found a lot of dog bones and skulls, so they were obviously a favourite dish, plus seal and sea lion and of course the ultimate ancient delicacy – moa.

Imagine that you’ve travelled across the vast Pacific ocean from your home islands, where the biggest land animals are pigs and dogs and the largest birds are chickens, and found a strange new home completely different in climate and geography from where you came from, with mountains and glaciers and temperate forests, and it’s full of absolutely enormous birds, twice as high as a person.  What would those people have thought when they first saw a moa towering above them?

We now know that there were 11 species of these bizarre birds, ranging in size from about the same as a turkey, to the true giants and the tallest birds that ever lived – Dinornis (the Giant Moa) which stood around 3 metres high and weighed in at a whopping 250kg or so. Different species lived in different envoronments ranging from coastal plains to high alpine tussock. They belong to a family of birds called ratites, which means they’re related to all the other big birds in the southern hemispehre like ostriches, emus, cassowaries and of course New Zealand’s other weird flightless bird – the kiwi. There were five different species that lived in the top of the South Island, and we’ve found the bones of all of them in this huge hangi pit.

moa-debrisAs we got deeper, we began to find whole bones :


Many people have this idea that in places like Wairau Bar huge herds of moa were somehow rounded up and driven into a dead end to be slaughtered, but in fact there’s absolutely no evidence anywhere in New Zealand of this kind of “mass killing”. It seems moa hunting was probably a lot like modern day pig-hunting – groups of hunters heading inland into the bush with their dogs, stalking individual moa, killing and butchering them in the field, and bringing the best cuts back home – which is why most of the bones we are finding in this oven pit are leg bones.  There may have been a few moa on the Bar itself originally , but they would have soon been taken out, and the hunters would  probably have paddled up river in waka into the interior of Malborough to seek moa in the valleys and forest that once covered the whole province.

I’ll post a complete list of the species found in the pit once they’ve all been identified back at the lab in Dunedin, but pretty much every bird species you could think of were found, plus more than a few that unfortunately aren’t around anymore. But the big surprise we found at the bottom of the hangi wasn’t the remains of any animal – it was the pit itself. Once all the debris had been cleared out, the archaeologisats were stunned to see that the huge oven was lined with stone – something that has never been seen on this scale anywhere in New Zealand or the entire Pacific. We dug about a third of the oven out – and it’s estimated the whole thing was over 4 metres across and at least 1.5 deep, all carefully crafted and lined with rocks. hangi-pitSome of the local Rangtiane guys, who know a thing or three about hangis, reckon they’ve been to huis where a thousand people have been fed from pits much smaller than this.

And the truly remarkable thing is we know from the fluxgate gradiometer work that this mega-hangi is just one of six all about the same size, all arranged in a circle on the edge of the lagoon :

fluxgate1The scale of these ovens is just staggering – how many people did they feed? It must have been way more than actually lived at the Wairau Bar settlement at any one time, which raises some intriuging possibilities. Were they for some special occasion, such as a enormous hui, or a very important tangi (funeral)? Was Wairau Bar a hub for the entire population of the country at the time, or the centre of trading? It is after all in a strategically central position in the country, so anyone sailing north or south would be passing by, and we already know there are types of stone here from one end of New Zealand to the other . It’s impossible to answer these questions at the moment, but this stunning discovery just goes to show that this amazing place still has plenty of secrets and mysteries yet to be solved.



2 Responses to “A Feast of Moa”

  1. 1 Yolanda
    January 23, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Hi guys

    I hope you’re all enjoying a well deserved beer as I write this, I know today would have been manic! I wish I could have been there with you.


  2. 2 dka
    February 16, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    it was probably just bbq nights. I’m sure they’ll find 700yrs old beer barrels hidden somewhere.

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