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. http://www.vivo.colostate.edu. 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