The nineteenth century was an age when scientific explorers were bringing to a marvelling public the wonders of extinct animals. People seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for prehistoric ‘curiosities’ represented by the fossil bones of animals such as gigantic elephants and sloths. They were enthusiastic visitors to museums and exhibitions where models of these strange beasts were on display.
The people who constructed these models were experts in a new development of scientific work – a combination of anatomy and biology, mixed with archaeology: palaeontology. Their reconstructions were often based on a few scraps of fossil bone. The theory was that if you could identify a single bone, you could predict the structure of virtually the complete skeleton in size and proportions.
One of the champions of this science was the British naturalist Richard Owen. In 1839, he received an unusual fifteen-centimetre-long chunk of bone from New Zealand. At first sight, it looked like the bone of an ox, but Owen, after studying it, declared that this was a thigh bone from a large bird similar in size and shape to an ostrich. He even made a sketch of what he thought the whole bone looked like.
Several years later, two boxes of assorted bones arrived from New Zealand and were taken to Owen for his diagnosis. From these, he identified at least five different species of the flightless moa, ranging from one much bigger than an ostrich down to one about as big as a dodo. His prediction from a single fragment of bone looked unerringly accurate. Moa became the latest wonder creature. Even Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert sought a private briefing and viewing with Owen.
Many more boxes of moa bones were despatched by enthusiastic collectors in New Zealand, generating a wave of moa modelling. The photograph at the head of this article shows Richard Owen standing beside his recreation of the giant moa.
The first models of moa displayed in this Museum were very much influenced by Owen’s reconstructions. In those days, people were more keen on emphasising the extraordinary aspects of prehistoric creatures. Models of moa today show the birds in a bent neck posture – a stance more suited to forest-dwellers (as they were) than the upright stance of plains birds such as the ostrich.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2006)