National | Dogs

Extinct Māori kurī the focus of Auckland university research

New research by University of Auckland postgraduate archaeology student Patricia Pillay has explored the link between humans and dogs in Polynesia and Aotearoa.

Dogs were friends, cooperative hunters, and sometimes competitors in ancient Polynesian communities, and were one of just a few animals transported across the eastern Pacific from the Cook Islands to the Marquesas, and even reached Aotearoa.

According to Māori legend, the famed navigator, Kupe, brought his dog to Aotearoa 650 years ago and, as more people arrived, their dogs were taken across the country, including to large offshore islands like Ahuahu/Great Mercury and Rakiura/Stewart Island to name a couple.

Pillay says that, despite their great value, dog bones and teeth are rarely found in Pacific Island archaeological sites, implying that they were kept in limited numbers and that they were imported but then lost through time on some of the region's smallest islands. In other cases, such as on some of the smaller Cook Islands, they are only known through local legends or archaeological discoveries.

“This pattern of arrival, followed by local extinction, suggests Polynesian dogs occasionally competed with their owners for food or in other ways, and perhaps were intentionally removed, but in Aotearoa, it’s a different story,” Pillay says.

Well cared for

Having consulted with local iwi, Auckland War Memorial Museum and archaeologists who were caring for the collections, Pillay was given permission to study kurī teeth from archaeological sites between the Northland and Bay of Plenty regions.

Among her findings, she discovered that kurī in Te Ika a Māui (North Island) had no cavities or plaque and few teeth were cracked or damaged seriously. This shows that the kurī had a low-sugar diet and ate soft meals. No signs of starvation or sickness were found, either.

Overall, it appears that kurī were well cared for in the past, findings that accord well with Māori history, she says.

“Kurī were probably important in hunting, especially for moa, and their bones and teeth are often found in early coastal settlements. They were also highly valued for their hides and fur which were made into cloaks for chiefs (kahu kurī) and in the 18th century, many had their own names and whakapapa.”

While kurī were not pets in the modern sense, she claims there is evidence that they were valuable in ways other than their economic value or job as hunters.

“In Aotearoa, dogs are mentioned in the traditional oral histories and also found in their own formal burials in some archaeological sites, which suggests a more complex relationship with humans,” Pillay says.

The origin of Kurī Māori

According to Rereata Mākiha, in the Māori oral tradition the Kurī Māori can be traced back to Māui and Irawaru, who was the husband of Hinauri, the sister of Māui.

"In the stories, we go back to Irawaru. That is the origin of the Dog."

Mākiha says Māori have always known the special place Kurī Māori had.

"They were kept as pets. I remember the stories that the Kurī were fed better than the children."

Emma Ash, who is a curator at the Auckland Museum says Pillay's research is groundbreaking.

"Obviously, kurī were pretty important to Māori, both as companions and for hunting birds. But also their bones, teeth, and fur were also used to make important tools."

"There is always that enigma about what role kurī played. Obviously, they had multiple roles that they played. So I think it's really interesting that Patricia has looked into this. I think it is the first study that's really looked into kurī diet."