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Moa bones at Te Ahu a Turanga: Manawatū Tararua Highway site undergo scientific analysis


Bones of two species of moa and of other large flightless birds unearthed in the Ruahine Ranges by the team working on Te Ahu a Turanga: Manawatū Tararua Highway have been sampled for analysis to determine their age and relationships.

Above: Palaeobiologist Dr Richard Holdaway discussing the moa bone sampling process with Te Ahu a Turanga Kaitiaki Terry Hapi at Te Manawa in Palmerston North.

The bones were discovered during excavation work on the western end of the highway alignment in March 2021. After the discovery, the bones were taken to Te Manawa Museum in Palmerston North for safekeeping while a decision was made about their future.

Te Ahu a Turanga’s Iwi partners; Rangitāne o Manawatū, Rangitāne o Tamaki nui-a-Rua, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Tāmaki nui-a-Rua, Te Runanga o Raukawa (Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga and Ngā Kaitiaki ō Ngāti Kauwhata), agreed for the bones to be sampled, with requirements for appropriate tikanga to be observed and for their immediate return to the maunga after the sampling.

The sampling for radiometric dating and isotopic and ancient genetic analysis took place across three days in December 2021, and was undertaken by palaeobiologist Dr Richard Holdaway, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Canterbury.

The sampling processs included photographing and 3D scanning the bones for replication and lodgement of replicas at Te Papa Tongarewa and Te Manawa. Previously, the sediments around, below and above the bones had been sampled for dating and for possible evidence of the vegetation at the site when the birds died.

Analysis of sediment samples at the Luminescence Dating Facility at Victoria University of Wellington has already provided a minimum age of 180,000 years for the bones, with a possible age of 345,000 years suggested by the nature of the sediment around the bones.

The bones were identified by Dr Holdaway with video consultation with Alan Tennyson, Curator of Vertebrates at Te Papa Tongarewa.The extreme age of the well-preserved bones makes them one of the most significant discoveries of such fauna in New Zealand.

Following the sampling, the bones were returned to the Ruahine Maunga in a private ceremony conducted by iwi.

Working alongside Dr Holdaway during the testing was Te Manawa Head of Collections and Exhibitions Jeff Fox and Te Ahu a Turanga Kaitiaki Terry Hapi.

Mr Hapi was entrusted by iwi with the responsibilty of ensuring appropriate tikanga was observed throughout the sampling and repatriation process.

“My role was to be the kaitiaki (protector) of the bones, which included having daily karakia to acknowledge the wheua moa, explain the process to them and reassure them that they would soon be returned to the breast of Papatūānuku back on the Ruahine maunga.”

Mr Hapi made sure everyone who handled the bones cleansed their hands to ensure tapu was lifted at the end of each testing day, and provided crucial insight and advice during the testing process. 

“One of our kaumatua explained to us that the whenua (earth) on the bones is tapu. So while cleaning the bones, we gathered up all of the dirt and that too was returned to the maunga.”

Waka Kotahi Owner Interface Manager for Te Ahu a Turanga, Grant Kauri, said it was a privilege for the project team to be part of such a historical discovery.

“This is an amazing find and we are really grateful for expert advice from kaitiaki and kaumatua throughout the entire process from discovery through to repatriation. It was important for this to be an iwi-led process and we were more than happy to support iwi wishes by bringing in experts to undertake the testing.”

Results from the many analyses are expected to be available later this year.

The Te Ahu a Turanga: Manawatū Tararua Highway is expected to be completed in December 2024. For more on the project, see Te Ahu a Turanga: Manawatū Tararua Highway.