Maoris Hunt Moa to Extinction Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The arrival of Polynesian people, the ancestors of the Maoris, brought about the extinction of all species of the moa, a flightless bird, in about 170 years.

Summary of Event

In the 1830’, Europeans in New Zealand found large fossilized bones that contemporary scientists concluded belonged to enormous extinct birds. Richard Owen, a noted English comparative anatomist, published a number of papers on the bones, inventing the classification Dinornis, “terrible bird,” a term perhaps suggested to parallel the name of another recent discovery, dinosaurs. These birds are known by the Maori word moa, a general term for fowl. Although early studies of the fossil bones eventually named more than sixty species of moa, standard modern classifications recognize only eleven, eight smaller species in the family Emeidae and three large species in the family Dinornithidae. DNA studies suggest that there were only two large moa species, one on North Island and one on South Island. [kw]Maoris Hunt Moa to Extinction (Late 13th century) [kw]Moa to Extinction, Maoris Hunt (Late 13th century) Maoris Polynesians New Zealand;Late 13th cent.: Maoris Hunt Moa to Extinction[2410] Cultural and intellectual history;Late 13th cent.: Maoris Hunt Moa to Extinction[2410] Environment;Late 13th cent.: Maoris Hunt Moa to Extinction[2410] Belisarius Justinian I Narses (d. c. 302 c.e.) Totila

Moa are ratite birds, flightless birds with a flat breastbone. Ratites include contemporary flightless birds such as the ostrich, kiwi, rhea, emu, and cassowary. The moa ranged in size from the upland moa, at about 55 pounds (25 kilograms), to the giant moa, which weighed around 600 pounds (272 kilograms). Early reconstructions of the giant moa oriented its neck in an upright position so that it stood about 13 feet (4 meters) tall. More recent studies have concluded that the bird carried its head and neck horizontally, stretched forward. The moa had no wings at all. The largest of the moa eggs measured 10 inches (25 centimeters) in length. The total moa population at the time of human settlement has been estimated at 158,000.

Scientists now agree that hunting by the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori caused the extinction of all moa species. The number of original settlers is not known precisely, though mitochondrial studies of living Maoris suggest that the original colonists numbered about two hundred individuals. As no other large terrestrial animals lived on New Zealand, the moa became a main source of protein for the Polynesians, with a medium-sized bird feeding fifty people for a day. The birds were easy to catch, as they did not fear human beings. Before the arrival of the Maori, the adult moa had only one predator: the Haast’s eagle, whose wingspan stretched 10 feet (3 meters). Perhaps the moa instinctively guarded against danger from above but had no time to learn to fear humans. Lack of specialized tools suggests that capturing moa was readily accomplished by snaring, spearing, or clubbing. More than three hundred midden sites exist, providing much information about the extent of moa hunting. A few sites are huge, occupying up to 300 acres (120 hectares) and served as processing centers for moa kills.

Traditional scholarship places Maori settlement in the tenth or eleventh century and the extinction of the moa six hundred years later. However, carbon dating of campfire sites places the arrival of the Maoris in the late thirteenth century and indicates that no moa were killed after the middle of the fifteenth century. A model proposed by R. N. Holdaway and C. Jacomb is consistent with the carbon dates. They presented five scenarios for moa extinction based on several variables: Either one hundred or two hundred people, either low or moderate population increase, killing one adult female bird weekly for either every ten or every twenty settlers, and either with or without habitat loss. The results situated moa extinction between 1380 and 1440, requiring at most 160 years, the most rapid extinction in history. Some Europeans reported sightings of smaller moa in the 1800’, but these claims are almost certainly mistaken.

The moa life cycle aided its demise. Although Holdaway and Jacomb did not consider loss of eggs in their model, the fact is that the largest moa eggs could feed a great number of people. Moa nesting-site remains indicate that the bird laid only one or two eggs at a time. From the small clutch size and a delayed rate of maturation, scientists conclude that the moa were like the majority of New Zealand avian species: A great number of individuals survived into adulthood, and the breeding population was close to saturation most of the time. The earlier estimates that extinction took six hundred years assumed that the Maoris cropped an annual surplus of individuals. In theory, the cropping of juveniles would not have stressed the species; however, the rapidity of extinction indicates that the early Polynesians mined breeding adults.

Two other factors may have played a role. The Maori burned much of the woodland habitat of the moa, notably along the eastern coast of South Island and also areas of the rain forest on the western coast. This fact was originally not recognized, and early scholars believed that the moa inhabited grasslands. A few moa remains were discovered in upland regions, though some scientists hypothesize that the loss of woodlands drove them to the uplands. In addition, the Maori ancestors brought dogs and rats with them, and it is possible that these species contributed to the extinction of the moa by eating their eggs or attacking the young. Putting these factors together leads to the conclusion that moa hunting, made easy by the birds’s habits, the nature of their life cycle, the destruction of their habitat, and the introduction of predator species, doomed the birds to extinction.

The Maori ancestors used moa bone and claws to make needles, fishhooks, and beads, and they transported water in the large eggs. A piece from an ancient cloak reveals that they used the moa skin to make clothes. However, examination of the middens also shows that they wasted parts of the moa. They threw away extant necks still attached to the heads, for example. According to one interpretation, they wasted one third of the meat, though according to another account, such waste may have resulted from a large number of kills being brought to the campsites at the same time.


In the latter third of the twentieth century, a contentious debate developed concerning the assumed ecologically sustainable lives of indigenous peoples. The roots of this controversy date back to the noble savage idea of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is a common belief that primitive peoples made use of all parts of the animals that they hunted, that they hunted only for their needs, and that they lived in harmony with their environment. Despite Owen’s initial judgment that human beings caused the moa’s extinction, early twentieth century ethnographers promoted the view that the Maori practiced conservationism. Others promoted the idea that the moa became extinct because of climate changes, disease, or other developments. Recent studies have not supported these views. The history of the rapid extinction of the moa, coupled with the evidence of waste, leads to the conclusion that the indigenous people did not necessarily live in a sustainable manner. Moreover, many other species of birds were brought to extinction by the Maoris. The same history of the extinction of megafauna by hunting and widespread clearing and burning of woodland characterize the habits of many prehistoric peoples in the Americas, Madagascar, and Australia, while in Africa and Asia, animals had time to develop fear of human beings as they moved into new territories. It is plausible that early human beings sought to acquire food and other necessities of life in the safest and quickest manner possible, with the least expenditure of energy, and without regard for the long-term effects.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Atholl. “The Extinction of Moa in Southern New Zealand.” In Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution, edited by Paul S. Martin and Richard G. Klein. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1984. Examines deforestation and dates moa remains.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belich, James. Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders, from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996. The first two chapters of this book place moa hunting in the context of Maori life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cassels, Richard. “The Role of Prehistoric Man in the Faunal Extinctions of New Zealand and Other Pacific Islands.” In Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution, edited by Paul S. Martin and Richard G. Klein. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1984. Examines the extinction of moa and other species.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holdaway, R. N., and C. Jacomb. “Rapid Extinction of the Moas (Aves: Dinornithiformes): Model, Test, and Implications.” Science 287 (March 24, 2000): 2250-2254.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trotter, Michael M., and Beverly McCulloch. “Moas, Men and Middens.” In Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution, edited by Paul S. Martin and Richard G. Klein. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1984. A summary of sites of moa hunting remains with radiocarbon dating.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whelan, Robert. Wild in Woods: The Myth of the Noble Eco-savage. London: IEA Environment Unit, 1999. A short book that traces the origin of the idea of the environmentally-in-tune savage and argues that the habits of primitive people could be very destructive to the environment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Worthy, Trevor H., and Richard N. Holdaway. The Lost World of the Moa: Prehistoric Life of New Zealand. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. A scholarly work by two leaders on the field, this book details the enormous loss of species, including the moa, in New Zealand.

Categories: History