Convergence of this year’s New Zealand Archaeology Week with the Year of the Dog provides the perfect opportunity to highlight the Polynesian dog or kurī and its importance to archaeological investigation in Aotearoa.

Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) were first introduced into Aotearoa New Zealand by Polynesian settlers who arrived in New Zealand around the late thirteenth to early fourteenth century.

The kurī was the only terrestrial domesticate, giving it a unique relationship with Māori. The kurī’s importance to Māori is witnessed by the industrial use of their fur and skins for  garment manufacture (such as kākahu), the use of bones and teeth to produce fishhooks and pendants, and their importance as a food source.

Kurī bone and teeth remains are frequently recovered from New Zealand archaeological sites from the bottom of the South Island to the top of the North Island and many of the offshore islands. It became extinct as a recognisable breed shortly after European arrival due to cross-breeding with other dogs of European origin. Therefore the recovery of remains from archaeological sites provides a valuable resource for understanding not only the ecology and importance of kurī in New Zealand, but also the behavioural practices of the people residing in association with them. 

Previous archaeological investigation of kurī has been used to answer a variety of different questions from butchery practices and diet to ancient DNA analysis to trace the movement of Polynesians through the Pacific. A large scale skeletal analysis was conducted to describe the physical features of the now extinct breed to better understand population variation and identify anatomical landmarks to aid in distinguishing the kurī from modern breeds. Information on the age, sex, diet and general condition of kurī can also be gleaned from this type of analysis.

Numerous studies have looked into the role of kurī as an economic resource to understand Pre-European Māori economy and resource utilisation. Butchery techniques were deduced from the presence of cut marks and bone representation in sites. Investigation of the industrial role of kurī remains is inferred through the presence of artefacts such as awls, needles, fishhooks and personal adornments (figure 1).

Figure 1: A fishhook in the process of manufacture from the base of a kurī mandible. The back of the mandible has been worked into the point of the fishhook. Recovered from the Oue Pa, Clevedon, Auckland

It’s not just the physical remains that provide this valuable information; microscopic and macroscopic examination along with ancient DNA analysis of kurī coprolites revealed a diet comprised mostly of marine (fish and shellfish) components and plant materials. Since kurī provide such a valuable resource, they often travelled with migratory groups throughout the Pacific allowing ancient DNA techniques to document the spread of Polynesians throughout the Pacific.

While cataloguing material from New Zealand archaeological sites as part of a wider Museum project, a number of unique kurī individuals were noted as these exhibited abnormalities in the dentition of the lower jaw or mandible. Dentition on each side of the kurī mandible normally consists of (figure 2);

-    3 single rooted incisors 
-    1 single rooted canine
-    1 single rooted pre-molar and three double rooted pre-molars
-    2 double rooted molars and a third single rooted molar

Figure 2: Two images of kurī lower jaw bone showing normal dental layout. Richard Bowen

The main dental abnormalities identified are listed below and were found across a number of different sites across the North Island including Houhora, Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island), Manukau Heads in Auckland, and Whangamata.
-    Extra alveolus (tooth socket) behind the third molar, suggesting an extra molar or double rooted third molar
-    Extra alveolus behind the canine, suggesting an extra pre-molar or double rooted first pre-molar (figure 3)
-    Single rooted fourth pre-molar
-    Single rooted third pre-molar

Figure 3: Kurī mandible with an extra pre-molar at the front of the mandible behind the canine. Extra pre-molar is still present within the jaw bone. Mandible recovered from excavations on Ahuahu/Great Mercury Island

Figure 4: Kurī mandible with a single rooted fourth pre-molar. Mandible recovered from excavations on Ahuahu/Great Mercury Island

Figure 5: Kurī mandible with an extra alveolus behind the third molar. This indicates either an extra molar or a double rooted third molar. Mandible recovered from excavations at Whangamata Wharf, Whangamata

The most frequent abnormality was the presence of an extra alveolus behind the third molar, suggesting the presence of an extra molar or a double rooted third-molar (figure 4).  This particular abnormality was found across nine individuals from three of the sites, with seven of the individuals from Whangamata. Great Mercury Island was the only site that didn’t show this abnormality. Instead one individual revealed a single rooted fourth pre-molar (normally double rooted) and another exhibited an extra pre-molar after the canine (figure 5). 

These dental abnormalities are often genetic and can be passed down through generations making them of interest to archaeologists as they provide a proxy to begin understanding economic relationships, population movement and contact between groups. If the same unique abnormality is found within a cluster of synchronous sites, contact, movement of people and trade and exchange networks can begin to be inferred based on the presence of related kurī moving between these areas. The sites mention here were not all occupied at the same time so it is unlikely they were all visited by the same group of people but it does suggest that the descendents of one of more dogs with that genetic abnormalities are found spread across the North Island.

As the cataloguing of the New Zealand archaeological collection housed at Auckland Museum continues links between sites may become more apparent and provide a richer picture of not only the spread of kurī across New Zealand but also of the relationships between pre-European Māori across the country.

Caption (header, detail): Kuri, Canis lupus familiaris, collected 1876, between "Waikava" & Mataura plains, Catlins, New Zealand. Gift of Mr Anderson, 1876. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (LM000828)

Further Reading:

Allo, J. 1970. The dentition of the Māori dog. Records of the Auckland Institute and Museum 8:29-45.

Coutts, P and Jurisich, M. 1973. Canine passengers in Māori canoes. World Archaeology 5(1):72 - 85. 

Clark, G. 1997. Osteology of the kurī Māori: The prehistoric dog of New Zealand. Journal of Archaeological Sciences 24:113 – 126.

Greig, K. 2017. Tracking dogs across the Pacific: An archaeological and ancient DNA study. Unpublished PhD thesis. Department of Anthropology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Wood et al. 2016. Microscopic and ancient DNA profiling of Polynesian dog (kurī) coprolites from Northern New Zealand. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 6:496 – 505.