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Feather cloaks (kahu huruhuru) are treasured possessions of many Māori tribes and are in museum collections around the world. Much knowledge about the materials used to construct the cloaks, the provenance of the cloaks and the origins of Māori cloak-making has been lost.

To help fill in these blanks, a team of scientists from Massey University, The University of Auckland, Griffith University in Australia, Te Papa Museum and the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution has undertaken DNA analysis of the feathers in Māori cloaks dating back to 1810. The analysis has done more than pinpoint the origin of the feathers. It has also revealed insights into historical Māori trade and movement.

The team sampled and recovered mitochondrial DNA sequences from 849 feathers from 109 cloaks sourced from museums around the world. The DNA analysis allowed the researchers to determine the species, sex and geographic origin of each feather’s bird. They were surprised to discover the vast majority of the cloaks (more than 99%) were made from feathers from the same species of kiwi, the brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli), from the North Island’s East Coast.

Fortunately, the researchers were able to extract the DNA samples from the quill or shaft of the feathers without causing any damage to the cloaks.

The art of making kahu huruhuru is believed to have sprung up in the early 19th century, with the feathers woven into soft woven flax bases. The research results show that, of the cloaks sampled, 15% contained kiwi feathers from different geographic locations, providing evidence of kiwi trading among Māori tribes or organised hunting trips into other tribal areas.

The researchers also found it took 4–5 birds to make a cloak and that around 60% of the feathers were from male birds. This was possibly because the males usually incubate the egg so might have been easier to catch.

One of the cloaks was at first thought to have been made from moa feathers, but this seemed odd as moa were already extinct before the tradition of making feather cloaks began. Analysis showed the feathers in this cloak came from Australian emus, which were possibly sourced from trade with Australian whalers or others coming to New Zealand via Australia.

The team’s research was published in the June 2011 edition of the prestigious Oxford journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Activity idea

In relation to this article, your students may like to extract and observe DNA from a tomato.
Introduction to DNA

Useful links

Read the research report in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.
http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/05/10/molbev.msr107

Read a research report about artefacts, biology and bias in museum collection research.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-294X.2012.05589.x/abstract

    Published 28 June 2011 Referencing Hub articles