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Makau: Hawaiian Fishhooks

Practical, handmade tools admired as a work of art


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The varied sizes and shapes of Hawaiian fishooks.

PHOTO Courtesy of Na Mea Makamae: Hawaiian Treasures


So impressed was Capt. James Cook by Hawaiian fishermen and the strength and neatness of the fishhooks they fashioned from natural materials that he made note of it: “Considering the materials of which these hooks are made ... we found them upon trial, much superior to our own.”

These fishhooks that Cook saw were the result of at least one thousand years of Hawaiian development and refinement. They were visually pleasing, with smooth, clean symmetrical shapes and perfectly suited for their intended purpose: catching fish.

Individual preference, competitiveness and rituals associated with fishing suggest each fisherman made his own fishhooks. Even today, anglers hesitate to show their hooks and lures to competing fishermen. The appearance of the hook was important to early Hawaiians, because they recognized fish as an integral part of nature and worthy of respect. It would be insulting to fish with a carelessly made hook. Therefore, much patience and skill were invested in making strong, neat-appearing hooks, which would ensure success in fishing.

Fishhooks varied in size from the smallest bone hook of a half-inch long to the large wooden shark hooks of eight inches. Some had barbs to hold struggling fish fast, and some barbs were used to prevent the bait from slipping off.

Pig, dog, bird bones and pearl and turtle shell were used for smaller hooks, but human bone was preferred for larger hooks. The pearl shell used to make fishhooks came from the pearl oyster, which was only found in certain locations. Pearl Harbor, once known as Pearl River, was named for a pearl oyster, Pinctada radiata, which once lived there in great numbers and was the major source of pearl shell for early Hawaiians. The raw material was cut with a coral saw, and holes were drilled in the bone or shell blank with a shell-pointed pump drill. It was then shaped with coral files and finished with sea urchin spine files. The Hawaiian fisherman considered his fishhooks to be one of his most prized possessions, and they were carefully cleaned and stored in containers after use.

In 1959, Kenneth Emory, William Bonk and Yosihiko Sinoto studied a sample of 4,159 fishhooks excavated from 33 separate locations. They noted variations in style and shapes from different chronological levels of settlement habitation, so that fishhooks looked different in different eras. The scholars developed a classification of shapes in order to recognize and track changes in style over time. In a revised report published in 1991, Sinoto further refined the coding system and noticed greater variations in line attachment configurations, which are important for tracing fishhook development.

Sinoto classified types of material used, point and shank shapes, line attachment configurations and the use of barbs. We can see the fishhooks change over time. Like arrowheads in Native American excavations, fishhooks are one of the few artifacts that can be used to date the layers in an archaeological site, without the use of radiocarbon testing. However, these chronological assumptions may not be foolproof. Location, availability of raw material and fishermen preference may skew the assumptions. Further research and more samples are needed.


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Honolulu Magazine May 2018
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