www.culture.gov.ck | (062) 20725 | culture@cookislands.gov.ck

800 year old pearl-shell fish hooks at the National Museum

The National Heritage Collection at the Cooks Island National Museum.

To increase public awareness of the unique artifacts of the National Heritage Collection displayed in the National Museum, the following article features another of the National Museum’s oldest and most reveling objects on exhibition.

A collection of eight 800 year old pearl-shell fish hooks recovered during archaeological excavations on Moturakau Islet in Aitutaki in 1990 by Archaeologist Melinda Allen, at Bishop Museum at the time, challenged long held theories of fishing practices in the southern cooks.

As with most central East Polynesian localities, pearl-shell was the preferred material for fishhooks which were highly developed throughout Polynesia.

The significant recovery of this collection of eight nearly complete one-piece pearl-shell fishhooks from the Moturakau Islet dispels the earlier proposition that pearl-shell was generally unavailable in the Southern Cooks and that prehistorically line fishing was the least important fishing technique in the Southern Cooks.

Further the recovery of the pearl-shell fishhooks suggests the possibility that due to the nature of its lagoons Aitutaki was in fact an important source area for pearl-shell.  Evidence of local production of pearl-shell artefacts suggest the species was readily available and not imports from the Northern Cooks as previously proposed.

The Moturakau specimens are all pearl-shell (Pinctada), with one exception made from Turbo further supporting that   Pinctada margaritifera was available locally    While there is evidence for the local pearl-shell on Aitutaki, the species is no longer abundant.  The possible factors suggested by Melinda Allen for the local decline of pearl-shell : 1) lowering sea-levels reducing the suitable habitat for deep water Pinctada;  2) over-exploitation by human populations; 3) lagoon infilling via increased sedimentation from deforestation and erosion on Aitutaki.

The curved form of the hook worked especially well with line fishing in deep waters or where there were currents.  The range of fishhook sizes in the collection, from 18 mm to 53 mm, suggests functionality rather than a stylistic attribute with the absence of points suggesting these were spent hooks rather than manufacturing rejects or accidental losses.

The Moturakau islet site provides a record of over 700 years of technology and subsistence in the Southern Cooks. The islet is the first archaeologically recorded quarry for the Southern Cooks and provides opportunities for further studies of East Polynesian stone tools. The association of well-preserved and abundant fish remains with fishing gear and the evidence for on-site fishhook manufacture are equally significant.

Recent Archaeological Research on Aitutaki, Southern Cooks, The Moturakau Shelter

MELINDA S. ALLEN University of Washington



The National Museum welcomes information on the history of Cook Island artefacts through our website, https://www.culture.gov.ck/national-museum/ 

Email:  justina.nicholas@cookislands.gov.ck    Tel:  00682 27025