The Last Tapu

23 June 2010

All images from the fantastic collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library

Got to wondering why my four-year-old post about the Huia, a fascinating and sadly extinct bird from New Zealand, was suddenly seeing a deluge of web traffic (well, by microecos standards), broken links and all.

Turns out, a single Huia feather just went to auction in Auckland and fetched NZ $8400 (about $6800 US), setting a new world record for the auction value of a single feather.

Huia feathers were important status symbols among the Maori.  The variation in the number of feathers worn in the hair of the individuals pictured above probably correlates broadly with their social standing, though it is interesting that the number of feathers in the images appears to dwindle with time.  An echo of the Huia’s decline, or a society in peril?  Perhaps a bit of both, certainly the two seem to have something of a common cause in the influx of European invaders, of the two-legged and four-legged variety.

Also noteworthy is that some of the photographs postdate the last confirmed sighting of a wild Huia in 1907.

One suspects the anonymous winner in the recent auction had status on their mind as they cast their bid.  As, I suppose, did their unnamed adversaries that  helped them drive the price up well above the expected NZ $500.  I mean the Huia’s tail feathers have a striking beauty to them, though I can’t help but find them more beautiful when the rest of the bird is attached:

When seemingly deeply vacuous contemporary status symbols like this fetch $10K, $7K for a Huia feather almost feels like an injustice.

But then, I guess that attitude misses the real injustices at work here.

One Response to “The Last Tapu”

  1. mollysamuel Says:

    Oh man, I hate extinctions. Also, in addition to the usual suspects, Wikipedia blames overhunting on museum collections. That seems strangely tautological. Or maybe tautological’s not the right word.


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