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Oral History Suggests Māori Proverbs on Bird Extinction Mirrored Fears of Indigenous Group’s Own Decline

The moa, a giant flightless bird, served as symbol of extinction and reflection of Māori fears over encroaching European presence

The moa, a species of giant flightless birds, went extinct soon after humans arrived in New Zealand during the 13th century (Wikimedia Commons)
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Around 1800, an ominous refrain, Ka ngaro ā-moa te tangata or “The Māori will become extinct like the moa,” entered the lexicon of the indigenous New Zealanders' whakataukī or ancestral sayings. Now, researchers argue that this warning, as well as a series of similar predictions and observations dotted throughout the Māori’s oral tradition, suggests the population was not only aware of the concept of extinction, but keenly attuned to the potential ramifications of such a sudden disappearance.

In an article published by The Conversation, three New Zealand scholars—conservation biologist Priscilla Wehi, Māori researcher Hēmi Whaanga and computational biologist Murray Cox—trace mentions of the moa, a giant flightless bird native to the region, across whakataukī. Their findings, newly published in Human Ecology, reveal surprising connections between language, culture and biodiversity.

Whakataukī offer “intimate observations about nature,” the authors write for The Conversation. Some describe the community’s food sources, while others outline succinct advice comparable to English proverbs. Those that mention birds overwhelmingly feature the moa, detailing the species’ appearance, behavior and, most forebodingly, flavor.

According to Science magazine’s Virginia Morell, nine moa species populated New Zealand in the centuries prior to the arrival of the Māori, Polynesian navigators who are believed to have arrived in waves to the island country some time between 1250 and 1300 AD. Soon after the new residents settled in, however, the moa vanished.

University of Copenhagen evolutionary biologist Morten Allentoft, lead author of a 2014 study on the moa’s abrupt demise, tells Morell there is no evidence of a dwindling moa population in the 4,000 years prior to their extinction. The birds’ numbers remained stable, and DNA analysis showed no decrease in genetic diversity, which would typically occur during periods of population decline.

Instead of finding a centuries-long path to extinction, Allentoft and his colleagues witnessed a speedy ending precipitated by human activity.

“We like to think of indigenous people as living in harmony with nature,” Allentoft tells Morell. “But this is rarely the case. Humans everywhere will take what they need to survive. That’s how it works.”

The new study builds on these existing explanations to analyze the Māori’s response to the moa’s disappearance—a far less tangible task that left them absorbed in the indigenous people’s extensive oral history.

The moa is just one of many large bird species corralled into extinction by the advent of human activity. But the Māori’s names for most of these vanished species, including the giant adzebill and the New Zealand raven, are lost, the authors write in The Conversation. Stories of the moa, however, pop up in whakataukī long after their extinction.

“They were a poster species,” the team explains. “A hashtag. Many sayings lament the loss of the moa, using different words and different phrasing, but with an echo that repeats over and over.”

Roughly 200 years before “The Māori will become extinct like the moa” entered the community’s whakataukī, a similar phrase appeared. In Māori, the saying is short and not particularly sweet: Mate ā-moa or "Dead as the moa."

Around the same time as the “The Māori will become extinct like the moa” emerged, variations, from Ka ngaro ā-moa te iwi nei (This tribe will disappear like the moa) to Ka ngaro i te ngaro o te moa (Lost like the loss of the moa) also entered whakataukī. Despite the fact that the moa had been gone for centuries, the bird's power as a symbol of extinction not only retained its potency, but came to reflect fears of Māori extinction at the hands of encroaching European arrivals.

“This remapping of whakataukī concerning the fifteenth century loss of moa to a much later nineteenth century social crisis—the imminent and very real threat of Māori biological and cultural extinction—powerfully emphasizes the impact of moa on the cultural psyche of Māori,” the authors write in their study. “The frequency and content of these later whakataukī support the view that Māori were not only aware of the dismal end met by moa, but also that moa extinction came to serve as an archetypal exemplar for extinction more generally.”

Today, the Māori culture endures. And, thanks to the preservation of Māori oral tradition, researchers have gained new insights on extinction, linguistics and, perhaps most importantly, the intertwined fates of humanity and the environment.

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