Where did kunes originally come from?

The question of where kune kunes originally came from is still under debate.

 There are several theories:

In 1945 an article in the Journal of Agriculture by J W Peirson speculated that kune kunes originated in China from the Old Poland breed. These Polish pigs are black and white and are the only other pigs in the world to display chin tassels. The name kune kune and colours of the pigs also correspond with the Old Poland pig. It seems probable that kunes are descendants of the breed, and came to New Zealand through trading between the Maori and American whalers in New Zealand in the mid 1800s.

The Old Poland pig was also introduced into Britain where it is no longer a pure bred. It seems that most of the modern pig breeds of today like the middle white and the Berkshire are descendants of these Asian pigs.

Some people consider the kune kune to be a cross between a Captain Cooker, (the feral pigs brought by Captain Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand) and another breed, such as the Berkshire. However as neither breeds have tassels this theory is not particularly credible. Additionally, kunes were introduced at relatively the same time as the Captain Cookers, and have not really had time to crossbreed and develop into a whole new species in the 150 or so years since then.

In 1982 G F Angus announced that there was supportive evidence to indicate kunes may originally have come from Spain. His theory states that kune kunes originated in Spain and were brought over to New Zealand just after the first European contact. Spanish whalers and sealers who had brought pigs as a food supply released them onto small offshore islands of New Zealand in the hope that they would breed and become a reliable food source for themselves and shipwreck survivors. 

He also had a good theory about the introduction of pigs into New Zealand which is better documented in the ‘Theory #5:Whalers and Sealers’ section. Because of the uncertain nature of the subject, genetic research is at present being carried out to determine the origin of the kune kune and other New Zealand pig breeds. 

When and how did pigs come into New Zealand? 

Theory #1: Maori Canoe 

The modern kune kune seems to be linked geographically with areas of strong historic and modern Maori attachments, like the East Coast, Waikato, Northland, Bay of Plenty. This seems to confirm that the kune pig has a long association with the Maori people, possibly even dating back to the earliest Polynesian immigrants.” – Percy Tipene. This theory states that the Maori brought kune kunes with them when they came to New Zealand, and that the pigs survived and bred. However, fossil evidence disproves this theory. 

There are no fossil signs of pigs in New Zealand until the late 1700s, when Europeans discovered New Zealand and began letting their pigs loose on small offshore islands and later the mainland. Another more probable branch of this theory states the Maori people brought the pigs with them in their canoes but the pigs did not survive the trip. Polynesians have always kept domestic pigs for food, and it is likely these pigs originally came from Indonesia or Asia, and were transported by early Polynesian travellers to New Zealand via Melanesia. Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangihiroa) discovered evidence of pigs similar to kunes in Tahiti in 950AD; from where the Maoris are thought to have originally came from. The pigs in Tahiti in fact have the same name as in New Zealand – kune kune. So it is very likely that when the Maoris were in canoes coming to New Zealand, along with the Polynesian rat and dog, they also had kune kunes. But because of the length and hardships of the journey no pigs survived to breed in New Zealand. Had the pigs been safely introduced into New Zealand at that stage (as the rats and dogs were) they would have undoubtedly flourished as they did when they were introduced in 1793. 

When Captain Cook first visited New Zealand in 1769, his journals note that near the north cape of the North Island, the Maoris told of a land north west of New Zealand where people ate ‘puaka’, which is rather conveniently the Samoan name for pigs. Unfortunately as the word itself is thought to have come from the English ‘porker’, this may not be as significant as it appears . 

Theory #2: Captain Cooker pigs 

This theory states that the kune kune is genetically related to New Zealand’s feral pig, the Captain Cooker. As has been previously mentioned, one particular version of this theory states the Captain Cooker pigs which were brought by their namesake on his first voyage to New Zealand as a food supply in 1769, somehow bred with a slightly more domestic pig also aboard Cook’s ship, to create the kune kune. If it were not for the tassels the kune kune pig sports today, 

This theory might be more credible. However to account for the tassels of today’s kune kune, the domestic pigs the Cookers bred with would have had to have been a breed such as the Tamworth, Wessex, Berkshire or Middle White, none of which have tassels themselves, but all of which are thought to be descendents of the Old Poland Chinese pig that, although not extant in its original purebred state any more, had the unusual feature of tassels, similar to those on the kune kune. Captain Cook may have well included such breeds of pig as a source of fresh food on his voyage to New Zealand in 1769, and so, although the theory is generally unpopular among biologists, it is not an impossibility. Another version of this theory states that the kune is a result of the breeding of the Captain Cooker and the Old Poland pig, after the Cookers had been introduced into New Zealand by Captain Cook, in the late 1700’s. The Old Poland breed, a domestic pig that had been popular in the USA in the 18th and 19th century, is thought to have been brought into New Zealand by American whalers then traded and effectively distributed through the gold miners. 

Theory #3: Captain Cook/De Surville 

Releases It is generally assumed kune kune were originally introduced into New Zealand by Captain Cook in 1763, when he exchanged the pigs, which he had been carrying on his ship as a source of food, for fresh food from the Maoris. However, for some reason these pigs did not survive or breed well. Some of the first pigs to come to New Zealand were brought by the French explorer De Surville, who gave a sow and a boar to a Maori Tribe in Doubtless Bay in 1769. It is generally assumed these were killed and eaten before they bred. In 1773 during Cook’s second voyage in New Zealand, Captain Furneax released one boar and two sows at Cannibal Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound, but these were later caught by the Maoris and eaten. Later that year Cook took some other pigs from Tonga and gave two pairs to a Maori Tribe south of Cape Kidnappers, gave another sow to the Maori at Queen Charlotte, and released three sows and a boar in West bay. A year later he released another pair near Cannibal Cove and during his last visit to New Zealand in 1777 he gave the Maori in that area another pair. 

Theory #4: King’s Gifts 

This theory is very well documented, due to the kidnapping of two important Maori figures which began the whole ordeal. This happened after two Maori were captured from the Cavalli Islands by the Norfolk Islanders so they could teach the convicts how to dress and weave flax. Unfortunately, one was a chieftain, the other a tohunga (priest), so neither had any experience in such a menial job that was done by the women and lower men. In 1793 they were returned to New Zealand and as way of apology given gifts by Lieutenant Governor Philip Gidley King, from Norfolk Island, including ten sows and two boars. The pigs spread throughout New Zealand, then King gave twenty six more sows and four more boars to other Maori tribes later. One major contributing factor to the pigs successful spread in New Zealand was the Maori custom for giving large, often live gifts to family members and members of other neighbouring tribes. 

Theory #5: Whalers and Sealers

 G F Angus’s unpublished paper on the origins, genetics and release into New Zealand of the kune kune and Captain Cooker pigs states that pigs were introduced by Spanish explorers and later domesticated by the European whalers and sealers who followed. From the 1790s onwards New Zealand was visited by many American and European explorers, sealers and whalers. Some of them tried to make pig breeding colonies on the small off shore islands of New Zealand so they would have food if they needed it, particularly for castaways and victims of shipwreck. Later pigs were traded with the Maori. American whalers at Russell swapped their tobacco and muskets for pigs and kumara from the Maoris. The Maori greatly valued pigs, and helped to spread them throughout New Zealand by giving them as gifts to other tribes and keeping them in semi-wild herds, which many escaped from and became feral. 

What happened next? 

Following the steady arrival of European settlers in New Zealand, the kune kune population began to plunge. Many of the Maori tribes that had before relied on the pigs for meat and fat were turning to European ways of feeding themselves instead, and the kune population subsequently decreased. Until recently the few remaining specimens lived on small farms in Te Kuiti and the Waharoa district in Northland. Luckily for the breed, in the early 1980’s Michael Willis and John Simister, two wildlife park owners, realised the serious danger of extinction the Kune population faced. As there were only about fifty purebred pigs left in the country, the breeders searched the country for kune kunes, buying ten sows and four boars off various breeders and farmers and brought the pigs to live in the South Island to breed. In the north attempts were also being made to help the kune kune population, and specimens of the pig were kept at the Hilldale Game Farm in Hamilton. The offspring of these breeders’ pigs were given to other breeders so as to ensure the pigs’ safety. Spreading the pigs through the country, and later on, the world, helped keep up numbers and lowered the risk of extinction of the species through disease or disaster. 

With the help of the continually growing number of breeders and owners outside New Zealand kune kunes are now living all over the world from Guatemala to North America and in Britain where, after their arrival in 1992, the pigs have become very popular.