Maori Subsistence Change: Zooarchaeological Evidence from the Prehistoric Dog of New Zealand

Article excerpt

Zooarchaeological studies of wild and domesticated animals demonstrate the diversity of information that can be obtained from their bones (Clutton-Brock and Grigson 1984; Davis 1987). The examination of species that were closely associated with prehistoric people is particularly useful, as those commensal species served past societies' economic, ceremonial, and industrial needs (Bartosiewicz 1984; Clutton-Brock 1981; Smith 1969). Much of the morphological variation found in commensal remains was once thought to be the result of purposeful human selection (Belyaev 1979; Bokonyi 1969; Scott 1955; Zeuner 1963). However, there is increasing data to suggest that it is the anthropogenic environment itself which sets many of the animals' morphological and behavioral parameters (Clutton-Brock 1992; Morey 1994; Tchernov and Horwitz 1991). Thus the geographic and temporal variation found in commensal remains will provide information about the animals themselves, but also has the potential to throw light on the prehistoric human environment in which they once lived. This paper suggests that the analysis of commensal remains, even at a coarse scale, has the capability to inform prehistorians of large-scale changes occurring in a prehistoric society.

In Oceania, work on the primary (Polynesian dog Canis familiaris, pig Sus scrofa, fowl Gallus gallus) and secondary (Pacific or Polynesian rat Rattus exulans or concolor) commensals has generally been limited to two approaches. The first of these involves the synthesis of historical and archaeological data to determine the animal's geographic and temporal distribution (Baldwin 1990; Cassels 1983; Kirch 1984; Urban 1961). The second approach is concerned with estimating prehistoric human subsistence from the identification and quantification of commensal remains from archaeological sites (Emory and Sinoto 1961; Kirch 1973; Rolett 1992). Morphological examination is surprisingly rare, given the early interest (Ball 1933; Miller 1906, 1924; Wood-Jones 1931) and the potential of such study (Wood-Jones 1929 : 329). In part, this lack of inquiry can be attributed to poorly excavated or curated remains, the dispersed nature of archaeological collections, and the often small sample size from an individual site or island. These difficulties aside, the diverse environments and cultures found in this region provide an opportunity to study commensal skeletal variation through time and between archipelagoes.

The Polynesian dog of New Zealand (kuri) has been the subject of study and discussion since the late nineteenth century. Interest in the kuri is due largely to it being the largest terrestrial mammalian carnivore in prehistoric New Zealand and to the fact that only the kuri and the Pacific rat were successfully established by Maori (Anderson 1990; Bay-Petersen 1984; McGlone et al. 1994). The demise of the kuri, caused by interbreeding with introduced European dogs (Anderson 1990; Colenso 1878), means that it is primarily through analysis of its biological remains that information about this extinct breed can be furthered. The archaeological utility of the kuri lies in its close association with Maori, as it was used for a number of purposes both functional and cultural (Allo 1970; Clark 1996; Luomala 1960; Schwimmer 1963).


Initial research on kuri remains was undertaken by Julius Haast. He believed that the early "moa-hunters," in contrast to the later "Maori," did not possess a domestic dog. Although he was primarily concerned with the stratigraphic placement of dog-gnawn moa bone in prehistoric sites, it was Haast (1872) who made the first anatomical comments about the kuri crania and dentition, including noting the presence of supernumerary teeth. Initial osteometric work by Hector (1877) and Hutton (1898) followed, using archaeological material and remains from wild dogs thought to belong to the kuri breed. However, these examinations were preliminary and research focus turned to the contentious question of the date of kuri extinction. …