Looking at linguistic echoes of extinct species

Priscilla Wehi and coworkers have a neat article in The Conversation describing a recent research paper that looked at traditional sayings in Māori, to try to understand whether they contain a trace of how the Māori ancestors interacted with bird species that the first encountered when reaching New Zealand: “Dead as the moa: oral traditions show that early Māori recognised extinction”.

It takes all kinds to study the past. Our team includes a conservation biologist, a linguist, a bioinformaticist and experts in Māori culture. Together, we delved into the wealth of ecological knowledge embedded in Māori oral traditions. We unpicked language cues, historical events and cultural contexts to understand habitats, animals, landscapes and the relationships between them.
Many whakataukī (pithy sayings like English proverbs) reveal intimate observations about nature. The link between flowering times and animal activity expose seasonal cycles. Whakataukī note the abundance of food resources.
Of those that refer to birds, a disproportionate number talk about moa. What they looked like. How they trampled through the forest with their heads in the air. How best to eat them.

This really is a fascinating concept, that the way that ancient people interacted with different species may be recorded in subtle ways by oral traditions. For those people who are curious about the stories of “ancients” in various parts of the world, this is the kind of linguistic research that might open a crack into unrecognized histories.