name that bird

October 26, 2010 § 1 Comment

The discoverers of these islands,who eventually developed into the Maaori, were like the Biblical Adam in some sense, naming and categorising the new landscape they would call home. What resources did they have? They had the language that would eventually develop into te reo Maori and the knowledge of their original landscapes and its flora and fauna somewhere in the central Pacific. Probably two items caught their eye relatively quickly.
This, macropiper excelsum







and this
Both must have caused quite a stir! The plant they would have immediately recognised from their homeland. Central Pacific cultures and parts of Melanesia have long used Kava for ceremonial and social purposes. Its mild narcotic qualities were discovered long ago and accessed through the chewing or mashing of the roots and creating a clayish concoction from the extracted juices.

Alas for these proto Maaori the variety they discovered on these shores does not contain the chemical properties that enduce the mild euphoria of the cousin plant back in the home islands.
The Maaori named it kawakawa, a reduplicated form of the name of the plant back home, which might interpret to mean ‘kava-like’.

The Maori however did not consider kawakawa useless. In fact, far from it. Despite the lack of euphorics in the plant, it still had medicinal properties as well as ritual purposes. Chewing is said to relieve toothache. Mourners at funerals, tangi/tangihanga in Maori, wear head wreaths of kawakawa. Read more about the plant here.

The bird however is a different story. The Linnaean classification dinornis points to ‘terrible’ as a referent. One of the largest birds to roam the earth, the moa also has the distinction of being the only known bird to be completely wingless. Most flightless have wings … that don’t really work, but the moa did not even have vestigial wing bone structures. You may be surprised to know that the proto Maori recycled the word moa, extending the original meaning ‘fowl/chicken’ to this giant. So I guess the proto Maori didn’t eat chicken wings.

 Though in defence in this odd choice, one might imagine that the Maori first laid eyes on one of the smaller species of the moa. In the far north a turkey-sized moa roamed the landscape. The largest of the moa, as depicted here lived on te Wai Pounamu, the South Island.  In fact it is not entirely clear whether the term was widely used for the bird. Hunted to extinction probably within a hundred years of the arrival of the proto Maori, the bird lived on only in oral tradition and in the keeping of a few moa eggs as treasures.

Curiously the moa did not only become extinct in New Zealand. In the 1980s the remains of a number of species of giant ducks were found in Hawai’i. Named moa nalo ‘lost fowl’ In Hawaiian, moa ngaro in te reo, these ducks like the moa of the other end of Polynesia would have dominated the landscape of most of the Hawaiian landscape with few natural predators … until the arrival of the proto Hawaiians.


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