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Open Peer Review for the Humanities

Simon Andre Thode, “An Account of Some Enormous Fossil Bones: British Scientific Exchange and Narratives of Discovery of the New Zealand Moa, 1839-1856″

Permalink for this paragraph 0 “An Account of Some Enormous Fossil Bones: British Scientific Exchange and Narratives of Discovery of the New Zealand Moa, 1839-1856″
Simon Andre Thode, The Johns Hopkins University

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The discovery of the giant flightless bird Moa from a single bone was a celebrated scientific achievement in early Victorian Britain.  It was labelled Dinornis by the comparative anatomist Richard Owen, Hunterian professor at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and the man who would soon label the ancient fossil reptiles Dinosauria.[1] Specimens of the bird first came to his attention in 1839, and its physical reconstruction, the taxonomy of the genus, and the first theories concerning its habits and extinction were put forward in the period between 1840 and 1856, which corresponded with New Zealand’s first years as a British colony.    At these early stages of European settlement, the country had very little in way of a scientific infrastructure.  Those few naturalists who lived there turned to their British counterparts for support and guidance in identifying the unique specimens discovered in their isolated land.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The story of the discovery of the Moa from a single bone remains popular in New Zealand.[2] It is in many ways a typical account of the triumphal use of superior metropolitan resources and methods in an imperial context.  However, like many such scientific accounts, beneath the surface lies messy interconnected webs of interaction of other men of science, recent settlers, colonial collectors, missionaries, and indigenous peoples, which makes the Moa’s discovery and description far from simple.  The aim of my paper today, once I have described Owen’s role, is to tease out some of the threads of this more complex historical process.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The paper will examine four men who played an important role in early Moa research.  The first is Owen himself.  The second is William Colenso, printer for the Church Missionary Society in the Bay of Islands.  With the Reverend William Williams, Colenso travelled to the East Coast several times from 1838 onwards, and eventually moved there.[3] The third man is Gideon Algernon Mantell, provincial doctor and geologist, whose son, Walter, the fourth on our list, immigrated to New Zealand in 1839.[4]

Richard Owen: Anatomist and Imperial Naturalist

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Owen had slowly gained a reputation as the ‘British Cuvier’ for his work on the primates and Australian mammals.  Having first associated himself with Cuvier after the Frenchman’s visit to London, Owen came to the attention of the eminent Oxford professor William Buckland in 1832.[5] By 1839 Owen was both comparative anatomist at the Royal College of Surgeons and the assistant conservator of the Hunterian Museum (his father-in-law was conservator).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The story of Owen’s discovery goes as follows: In October 1839, Dr. John Rule of Sydney brought a bone fragment to the Hunterian Museum.  Rule had received the bone from John Harris, an East Coast trader, along with a note which stated that it had been found in New Zealand, where the natives had a tradition that it belonged to “a bird of the Eagle kind, but which has become extinct, and to which they give the name of ‘Movie’”.[6] Owen was initially reluctant to investigate, but eventually promised to look at it after teaching his classes.  Using the functionalist approach of anatomical reconstruction pioneered by Cuvier, he compared the bone to that of the ox, horse, hog, camel, llama, kangaroo, dog, grisly bear, lion, and orang-utan.  Finally, he was able to conclude that it belonged to a flightless bird similar in size to an ostrich.[7]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In November 1839, he presented his findings to a meeting of the Zoological Society of London.[8] Many fellow zoologists doubted his findings.  How could such a large bird have lived in such a small and isolated habitat?  Similar large flightless birds – the Ostrich, Rhea, Emu, and Cassowary – had extensive landmasses over which to roam.  Even Owen felt habitat size was a problem.  Nevertheless, his work was accepted into the Proceedings of the Society, at the author’s risk if the findings were disproved.[9]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In July 1842, a letter arrived from a friend in Sydney, informing Owen of a great number of new bones found on the East Coast of New Zealand.  Earlier in 1842, the Reverend Williams had sent two cases of them to Buckland at Oxford.  The first case did not arrive for almost a year, but when it did Buckland immediately forwarded it to Owen, as he was a specialist in comparative anatomy and the only scientific man to have published on the Moa before.[10] The case was forwarded on 19 January 1843, and by the meeting of the Zoological Society on 24 January, Owen had prepared his initial findings.  Jacob Gruber describes Owen’s report as an almost boastful response to the initial doubts shown by his colleagues in 1839.[11] Subsequently, his 1839 paper was reproduced in the Transactions of the Zoological Society.  He changed the conclusion, abandoning earlier caution in an attempt to engage assistance in the collection of bones and perhaps even live specimens.[12] Owen later claimed that he had sent copies of his 1839 paper to New Zealand for such a purpose.  The missionary naturalist William Colenso, however, stated he had never read it, nor met anyone who knew of its existence.  From the New Zealand perspective, the discovery of the Moa was a far more complex and heterogeneous event than a confirmation of Owen’s deductive capabilities.  We shall turn to it now.

William Colenso: Colonial Collector

Permalink for this paragraph 0 There were references to an extinct flightless bird in New Zealand prior to 1839 that were overlooked by the scientific community in Britain.  An account of a voyage to New Zealand in 1814-15 noted the similarity of the feathers on Maori chiefs’ cloaks to those of the Cassowary and Emu.  However, they could easily be interpreted as the feathers of the flightless night bird, Kiwi (Apteryx), which had first been mentioned in 1811, but was officially known to exist in the 1830s.  Actual reference to a large flightless bird once or presently living in New Zealand was first made by Joel Polack, a trader stranded on the East Coast of the North Island in 1834, who published his memoirs in 1838.[13] But this account remained largely unnoticed in scientific circles.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 William Colenso, missionary and printer, had become a keen naturalist after visits to the Bay of Islands by Charles Darwin and the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker.  On his journeys to the East Coast from 1838 onward, Colenso sought out new and unusual natural specimens.  He heard stories about the Moa from Maori but had initially discounted them as ‘fabulous’.  Upon returning to the East Cape region in 1841-42, he actively searched for Moa bones or living specimens.  His journey took him past the mountain of Wakapunake, where he visited the village of Te Reinga, but did not encounter anyone who had seen the bird.  He also heard stories of a second Moa at Te Waiiti, five days journey further into the interior.  He succeeded in collecting several bones during this visit, and decided to offer rewards for  more.  Reverend Williams, who had accompanied Colenso to the East Coast in 1838, now resided there, and he took charge of collections from Maori.  Colenso would focus the discussion of his first illustrated scientific paper on the subject on descriptions of the bones and Maori belief in the Moa’s existence.  Their fear of it, in his mind, was far more real than typical superstition.[14] He would send this paper to the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science for publication in 1842, but it did not appear until 1846 due to troubles at the Tasmanian Society.  By this time Owen was firmly ensconced as discoverer, and an addendum attached, a letter from Professor Buckland informed readers of the journal that the bird be known as Deinornis Novae Zelandiae.[15] (Although in the long run Colenso’s indigenous name stuck in the popular imagination)

Gideon Mantell: Some-time Surgeon and Geologist

Permalink for this paragraph 0 A number of other New Zealand residents would later claim to have identified the Moa prior to either Owen or Colenso.  As they sought further information and specimens from Maori, oral traditions would grow up around the bones that littered parts of the country.  In many cases, the active inquiries of missionary naturalists helped develop a new mythology around the bird that grew in scope and detail from the vague traditions Colenso initially heard.  Nevertheless, as Owen’s dissemination of his later paper suggests, local Maori knowledge gathered through missionary naturalists and traders was a vital part of establishing the existence of the Moa; it would remain so in taking the next step of working out the taxonomy and habits of the bird, as well as the reason for its extinction.[16]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 British provincial geologist and doctor Gideon Mantell—the discoverer of the Iguanodon in 1825—had a particularly good colonial connection in his son, Walter, who emigrated in 1839.  Gideon was a deeply unhappy man whose bitterness at the world verged on paranoia.  His wife had left him prior to his son’s departure, and he was also forced to sell his fossil collection to the British Museum due to financial difficulty.  Then, in 1840, his favourite daughter died of tuberculosis.[17] He was never in a position such as Owen’s, where he was able to spend all available time on science. (Walter had partially been trying to escape pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps as both surgeon and man of science)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Although Gideon was unhappy about the emigration, he did not hesitate to use his son’s new location to help his scientific ambitions.  Gideon gave Walter instructions to collect natural history specimens for both him, and informed him of Owen’s interest in the remains of struthious birds.  In 1847, Walter, assured in a colonial government position in which he travelled around New Zealand, sent word to his father of a find of bird remains at the Waingongoro River near New Plymouth.  From this site, Walter sent back to England a collection that would prove very useful in sorting out questions of classification for the Moa and other New Zealand birds.  The elder Mantell now proudly published work on the collection and offered exchanges with other naturalists for the benefit of both himself and his son.[18]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Gideon published two major papers on Walter’s collections in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, in which he theorised about New Zealand’s geological history and the history of the Moa.  In the first, published in 1848, he speculated that the Moa had once inhabited a wide continent which had subsequently subsided into the sea, leaving only remnants of land, the largest part of which was New Zealand.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In the paper, Gideon described Owen’s identification of the genus from a single bone as the epitome of Cuverian philosophy, but by 1850 the two Englishmen were openly contemptuous of one another at various public meetings in London.  Owen openly attacked Mantell and his work on the Moa, while Mantell complained that Owen was taking too long to publish on Walter’s collection.  However, despite their animosity, Mantell still conceded authority to the man whom he considered important in the British scientific community.  If a collector refused Owen’s requests for access to specimens, then he could damage his reputation in the eyes of other men of science.  Mantell could not be seen to be putting his personal views above those of the community, who saw the benefit of having the expert Owen examine every collection sent from New Zealand.  (Though Owen attacked Gideon openly, he was less hostile to Walter Mantell)

Imperial Science

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Owen gained much prestige from predicting the existence of the Moa.  It was, to him, one of the most remarkable acquisitions to zoology which the nineteenth century had produced.  Andrews argues that the Moa came to the attention of the British scientific community at just the right time, when palaeontology was enjoying unprecedented popularity, when supplies of zoological specimens from British colonies were increasing, and before the question of evolution began to dominate the scientific landscape.  Because of this fortunate timing, the Moa was considered to be a very significant scientific subject, and Owen, at the centre of British science and the first to publish on the Moa, benefited more from it than any other man of science.[19] The boost that Owen received from ‘discovering’ the Moa in 1839 was indelibly linked to the Cuverian functionalist myth.  Even when Owen began to criticise Cuvier’s methods, his account of the discovery did not deviate from this alluring myth that had him identifying – some suggested reconstructing – an entire species from a single bone.  This story enhanced his fame beyond the scientific community.  Influential members of society, including Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel and Prince Albert, showed interest in his work, and he became a celebrated figure in Victorian society.[20]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 There were numerous geographical reasons for why Owen could claim credit for the discovery of the Moa.  His position at the Royal College of Surgeons and Hunterian Museum gave him access to rich collections of zoological specimens, which allowed him to identify fossils quickly and efficiently.  His position in the Zoological Society allowed him to publish and establish his findings without delay.  His skills in comparative anatomy, the discipline now essential to geology thanks to Cuvier, were perfectly suited for producing useful knowledge about the Moa and New Zealand’s geological past.  His connections to other influential naturalists, including William Buckland, gave him powerful allies in any debate, and a powerful patron to guide him and expand his scientific networks.  And his wider reputation, based as it was on the myth of reconstructing a bird from a single bone, gave his conclusions credibility in the popular imagination.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 It is the last which I wish to conclude on—the tension between the straightforward scientific tale of discovery and the complex historical processes of exchange which lie beneath it.  This tension reveals to us something of the nature of the early workings of British imperialism in the Antipodes and its relationship with science.  We see clearly that the distance between New Zealand and England meant that Owen was dependent on col[21]lectors in order to establish the accuracy of his work.  In addition, these collectors were dependent on local Maori knowledge for potential locations of bone specimens.  Inquiries about these specimens led to alterations in local knowledge, as Maori picked up on naturalist speculations about the bird and reassessed their own understanding of the Moa and its place within their world.  However, neither colonial naturalists nor Maori were incapable of gaining credit scientifically for what they knew without the institutional or community resources available to those in Britain.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 We may think of networks of cooperation, local knowledge, or the dominance of authority of the centre when trying to unpack these historical processes.  Alternatively, we might investigate using webs of connections, where the relative importance of certain nodes in the web, such as Owen, Colenso, or Walter Mantell are apportioned in certain quantities dependent on geographical and institutional factors.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 But in the case of imperial science, we should not forget the key historical process for many of the actors involved was the reduction of all this messiness into a comprehensible narrative.  The creation of the functionalist myth of deducing the existence of a bird from a single bone reinforced the power of the imperial scientific model to all those involved, and in so doing reinforced the power of the imperial relationship to establish what is termed ‘universal scientific knowledge’.  The history of scientific discovery is by nature a layered process, one that occurs over geographical distance, time, and through the cooperation of many hands, but the science of natural history, much like the imperial relationship itself—and for that matter, the creation of history—requires the destruction of individual perspectives.  After all, one abstract imperial narrative is far easier to grasp, to understand, and potentially to control.

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Permalink for this paragraph 0 Colenso’s Sketch of Moa Bones accompanying the Paper sent to the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science.

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Permalink for this paragraph 0 Owen’s Illustration of the Bone from which he made his claim that a Large Flightless Bird lived in New Zealand.


[1] The word Moa is a generic term, used to describe all flightless birds from New Zealand that exceed a certain size.  All species of Moa were extinct by the time of European contact, though this fact remained uncertain during the period examined by this chapter.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [2] See for example Richard Wolfe, Moa: The Dramatic Story of the Discovery of a Giant Bird (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2003).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [3] David Mackay, “Colenso, William 1811 – 1899,”  http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [4] Henceforth, I shall mostly refer to Gideon and Walter Mantell by their first names.  When using the name Mantell on its own, I shall be referring to the father, Gideon, and not the son.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [5] Jacob W. Gruber, “Owen, Sir Richard (1804-1892),” Oxford University Press, http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/view/article/21026

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [6] Richard Owen, “Notice of a Fragment of the Femur of a Gigantic Bird of New Zealand,” Transactions of the Zoological Society of London 3 (1842) p.29.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [7] J.R.H. Andrews, The Southern Ark: Zoological Discovery in New Zealand, 1769-1900 (Auckland: Century Hutchinson, 1986) pp.123-127; Wolfe, Moa pp. 13-20; Owen, “Notice of a Fragment of the Femur of a Gigantic Bird of New Zealand,”   pp.29-30.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [8] Richard Owen, “Exhibition of a Bone of Unknown Origin,” Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 7 (1840) p.170.  States here that: “The discovery of a relic of a large struthious bird in New Zealand is one of peculiar interest, on account of the remarkable character of the existing Fauna of that island, which still includes one of the most extraordinary and anomalous genera of the struthious order, and because of the close analogy which the event indicated by the present relic offers to the extinction of the Dodo of the island of the Mauritius. So far as a judgement can be formed of a single fragment, it seems probable that the extinct bird of New Zealand, if it prove to be extinct, presented proportions more nearly resembling those of the Dodo than of any of the existing Struthionidae.”

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [9] Wolfe, Moa pp.21-23; Richard Owen, Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand; with an Appendix on Those of England, Australia, Newfoundland, Mauritius, and Rodriguez, vol. vol.1 (London: John Van Voorst, 1879) p.iv.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [10] Owen’s friend, William Broderip, wrote of opening the case: “As each bone of the feathered giant was taken out it was impossible to repress exclamations; but when the enormous tibia came within our grasp, it was flourished aloft with a shout of wonder and joy that made the Museum ring again.  Fortunately, we wore no wig, as dear Mr. Oldback did, or it certainly would have been hurled upwards, where it would probably have ornamented one of the many antlers which overhung us.” (See, William Broderip and Richard Owen, “Professor Owen – Progress of Comparative Anatomy,” Quarterly Review, London 90 (1852), p.403)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [11] Jacob W. Gruber, “From Myth to Reality: The Case of the Moa,” Archives of Natural History 14, no. 3 (1987) p.346; Richard Owen, “On an Extinct Genus of Struthious Bird from New Zealand,” Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 10 (1843) pp.8-10.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [12] Owen, “Notice of a Fragment of the Femur of a Gigantic Bird of New Zealand,”   p.31.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [13] Extract from Polack, Manners and Customs of the New Zealanders, in Henry Hill, “The Moa – Legendary, Historical and Geological: Why and When the Moa Disappeared,” Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 46 (1913) p.330.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [14] William Colenso, “An Account of Some Enormous Fossil Bones, of an Unknown Species of the Class Aves, Lately Discovered in New Zealand,” The Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science 2 (1846) pp.81-84; Andrews, The Southern Ark pp.127-129.  The following is Colenso’s version of the Maori account of the Moa: “Whilst at Waiapu, (a thickly inhabited locality about 20 miles S.W. from the East Cape) I heard from the natives of a certain monstrous animal; while some said it was a bird, and others “a person,” all agreed that it was called a Moa; – that in general appearance it somewhat resembled an immense domestic cock, with the difference, however, of its having a “face like a man;” – that it dwelt in a cavern in the precipitous side of a mountain; – that it lived on air; – and that it was attended, or guarded, by two immense Tuataras…, who Argus-like, kept incessant watch while the Moa slept; also, that if any one ventured to approach the dwelling of this wonderful creature, he would be invariably trampled on and killed by it.  A mountain named Wakapunake, at least 80 miles distant in a southerly direction, was spoken of as the residence of this creature; here, however, only one existed, which, it was generally contended, was the sole survivor of the Moa race.  Yet they could not assign any possible reason why it should have become all but extinct.”

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [15] Colenso, “An Account of Some Enormous Fossil Bones,”   pp.81-82, 106-107.  Note that this paper is also printed in: William Colenso, “An Account of Some Enormous Fossil Bones, of an Unknown Species of the Class Aves, Lately Discovered in New Zealand,” The Annals and Magazine of Natural History 14 (Series 1), no. 89 (August 1844) pp.81-96.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [16] Margaret Orbell, Hawaiki: A New Approach to Maori Tradition (Christchurch: University of Canterbury, 1985), pp.65-66; Atholl Anderson, Prodigious Birds: Moas and Moa-Hunting in Prehistoric New Zealand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.176.  Orbell notes the long-held desire of scholars, both Maori and pakeha, to demonstrate the historicity of Maori traditions.  Until recently it was assumed that if these traditions held no historical information, then they would be regarded as meaningless.  However, Orbell argues that the mere act of their creation within the mind provides insight into the distinct way that pre-contact Maori thought.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 One should note that the Maori understanding of an extant species was (and is) very different from the Western scientific view.  It was often difficult for European minds to deduce whether the creatures Maori spoke of were real or imagined.  Atholl Anderson states: “The duality of the concept ‘moa’ apparent in the early references – which at the same time allowed moas to disappear long ago, but mythological ‘moa’ to survive in certain places until the 19th century – was an obvious source of confusion.”  It is likely that contemporary Maori came to know the Moa as a ‘real’ bird through European interest, and there is no evidence that any of the names associated with the giant flightless bird had traditionally been attached to it.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [17] Dennis R. Dean, “Mantell, Gideon Algernon,” Oxford University Press, http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/view/article/18004

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [18] Jacob W. Gruber, “The Moa and the Professionalising of New Zealand Science,” The Turnbull Library Record 20, no. 2 (Oct., 1987) pp.68, 70-73, 75-76; Andrews, The Southern Ark p.75; Dennis R. Dean, “Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (1820–1895),” Oxford University Press, http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/view/article/53960

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [19] Andrews, The Southern Ark p.130.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [20] Gruber, “From Myth to Reality: The Case of the Moa,”   pp.341, 347.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [21]

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