Makau: Hawaiian Fishhooks
Practical, handmade tools admired as a work of art
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.
The study classified Hawaiian fishhooks into three types: one-piece, two-piece and composite hooks (hooks used with a lure). One-piece hooks were usually the smallest of the three types, and the most common. They were used to catch reef fish from shore or in shallow waters, from a canoe. One-piece hooks are further broken down into two shapes: jabbing and rotating. It is likely that these two hook shapes were developed in response to the way a fish takes the bait. A jabbing hook is most effective for catching fish that just nibble at the bait. The rotating-shaped hooks are unique to Polynesia, and are found, even today, to be the most effective hooks in fishing. That’s because as the fish struggles, the hook is embedded deeper into the fish’s jaw. This type of hook would be used for fish that immediately swallow a baited hook. A.D. Kahaulelio, a noted Hawaiian fisherman at the turn of the 19th century, called these rotating hooks “mahina.” He said, “[The rotating hooks] were the best kind in the olden days and held the fish fast.”
(from left to right)
The two-piece hooks are larger and unique to Hawaii. They were made in two pieces, because, as the distance from the point to the bend of the hook increases, the more leverage and stress is concentrated at the bend. This stress would cause one-piece hooks to break at the bend. The Hawaiians’ solution was to separate the point and shank pieces of the hook and tie them together at the bend. This made the bend as strong as the knotted fiber and stronger than the original bone. The shank piece of two-piece hooks was often made of wood. Two-piece hooks were used to catch larger reef fish and deep-water species. The bone points of the large wooden shark hooks are included in this classification. Composite hooks include the points used on aku lures and squid lures. They were usually made out of bone.
Finally, the composite hooks also included lures. Pa, the aku lures of the Hawaiians, were trolled from a canoe and attracted a fish to bite. The lures were made out of pearl shell, and the color of the shell was very important to the Hawaiian fishermen. Kahaulelio recognized two major color variations: lehua (rose or red) and uhi (a single color, usually white or yellow). “The lehua pa hook was used from the hours before the sun rose to about eight in the morning,” Kahaulelio noted, “then the pa uhi was used when the sun was high overhead.”
Another type of composite hooks held squid lure. Squid lure is a misnomer, because the lures were in reality used to catch he’e, or octopus. These lures used a cowry shell, with a stone sinker to attract the octopus. The first step involved smoking the cowry shell over a fire before it could be used as a lure. The successful hee fisherman matched the stone sinker and the cowry shell with the color and time of day. The hook was fastened to a short stick sandwiched between the shell and the stone, and protruded about two inches from the lure. The octopus would be captured when it encircled the lure and then quickly retrieved to the canoe.
When Capt. James Cook happened upon the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, he exchanged metal nails for produce and meat to resupply his ships’ larders. These nails were so valuable to early Hawaiians that they formed a sort of universal currency. One nail equaled two pigs. Nails were shaped into fishhooks stronger than traditional hooks and enabled them to catch more and larger fish.
The artistic shapes of Old Hawaiian fishhooks have fascinated visitors to Hawaii since the time of Cook. They were a popular item for the Hawaiians to trade with the early explorers, the whalers and the traders that visited the Islands. Cook collected at least 25 examples of Hawaiian fishhooks. In the 19th century, bone and shell fishhooks were made specifically for trade, and their shape became somewhat standardized. Lately, their shapes have been copied by Hawaii craftsmen and are worn as popular pendants. Hawaiian fishhooks, while made for a practical purpose, have also become creations of beauty and refinement that are still appreciated today and serve to connect us with their ancient past.