Classification: Chordata, Mammalia, Carnivora, Canis.
Species: Canis lupus familiaris.
Size: Highly variable, betrween 20 and 38 centimetres high at the shoulder.
Known locations: New Zealand.
Time period: Uncertain origin, the breed goes extinct at some point after the 1800s after the arrival of the first European settlers.
Fossil representation: Skeletal remains, furs, objects carved from bones, and a few examples stuffed.
The Kurī was introduced to New Zealand with the arrival of the first people sometime in the late thirteenth century. At the time of its arrival, the Kurī was the largest mammalian predator in New Zealand (not counting people), though the Kurī is often credited with being about the size of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes). The Kurī however also seems to have been highly variable with accounts of different sizes, hair colours from black, white, brown and mixed to even long and short haired forms being known. At this point it should be pointed out that the Kurī was not so much a distinct species, but a specific breed. As such the Kurī is classed under Canis lupus familiaris, better known as the domestic dog. This sub species derived from the wolf (Canis lupus) contains all breeds of domesticated dog from spaniels and poodles, to collies and spitz.
Kurī was an important
part of Maori society with several uses. One of the main tasks
appointed to Kurī were as hunting dogs, and they seem to have been
quite successful at hunting the flightless birds such as kiwi and
possibly even smaller moa.
In fact the arrival of Kurī, their use
by hunters and possibly even feral populations has been seen as a
significant contributing factor to the demise of the moa and other bird
species in New Zealand.
The Kurī however were also food for the Maori, and their meat was readily eaten. One of the earliest western accounts of Kurī being eaten comes from the famous British explorer and sea captain James Cook who described the taste of Kurī flesh as being like lamb. Kurī meat was also a food associated with priests who would ritually sacrifice Kurī as offerings to the gods.
Kurī were not only valued for their meat, the fur was also used to make things such as blankets and cloaks. White fur was of particular value to warriors as they would tie the fur to their weapons so that when the weapon was moved, the eyes of the opponent would be distracted by the bright fur being waved around in front of them. Even the bones of Kurī were not wasted and would be carved into everything from fish hooks to ornamentation.
Kurī also earned places within many stories. The first tells of how the Kurī came into being when the god Māui was so angry with the laziness of Irawaru, that he grabbed hold of him as he slept and pulling and pushing upon certain parts of his body, fashioned him into the first Kurī dog. Another story tells of how a Kurī jumped from a canoe into the sea at night, and then guided the people on board to the New Zealand coast when it started howling as it left the water. This is a good point to say Kurī are only ever spoken about as howling, not barking.
There are also legends of Kurī turning to stone, the most well-known being the story of the explorer Kupe, who left one Kurī dog waiting so long in Hokianga Harbour that it turned to stone. Another tale tells of how two stone Kurī supposedly haunt a lake by howling, and anyone who calls back out to them suddenly find themselves consumed by a fierce storm.
When the first European settlers arrived in New Zealand they brought their own dogs with them, and this seems to have signalled the end for the Kurī as a breed. The Kurī quickly earned a reputation amongst the European settlers as lazy with a low drive for work, something that ties in well with the original legend about their origin, as well as the Māori own sentiment about the breed. Needless to say the Europeans stuck with their own more familiar breeds, and the demise of the Kurī breed is thought to have come about by cross breeding with European breeds, to even replacement.
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- Pre-European Hunting Dogs in the South Island, New Zealand. - New Zealand Journal of Archaeology. Dunedin: New Zealand Archaeological Association. 3: 15–20. - Atholl Anderson - 1981.
- The Kuri in Prehistory: a Skeletal Analysis of the Extinct Maori Dog. - MA thesis, Anthropology Department, University of Otago. - Geoffrey R. Clark - 1995.
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