Ancient fish hooks pose challenge

Tuesday November 14, 2017 Written by Published in Local
The Pinctada oyster was a favoured source of pearl-shell. 17111341 The Pinctada oyster was a favoured source of pearl-shell. 17111341

This story features more of the National Museum’s oldest objects. It is part of a series designed to increase awareness of the museum’s fascinating National Heritage Collection. 


A collection of eight 800-year-old pearl-shell fish hooks recovered during archaeological excavations on Moturakau Islet in Aitutaki in 1990 challenged long held theories of fishing practices in the southern Cook Islands. 

The hooks were discovered by archaeologist Melinda Allen, who then worked for Hawaii’s Bishop Museum.

Pearl shell was the preferred material for fish hooks which were highly developed throughout Polynesia.

The significant recovery of this collection of eight nearly complete one-piece pearl-shell fishhooks dispels the earlier theory 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.

The recovery of the fishhooks suggests the possibility that due to the nature of its lagoons, Aitutaki was an important source of pearl shell.

Evidence of local production of pearl shell artefacts suggest it was readily available and was not imported from the Northern Cooks as previously thought.

The Moturakau specimens are all pearl shell (Pinctada) apart from one, further supporting the fact that Pinctada margaritifera (black-lip pearl oyster) was available locally.

While there is evidence for the local pearl-shell on Aitutaki, the species is no longer abundant.

Factors suggested by Allen for the local decline of pearl shell on the island are lowering sea levels reducing the suitable habitat for deep water Pinctada, over-exploitation by human populations, and 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 stylistic attributes, 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 in the Southern Cook Islands and provides opportunities for further studies of East Polynesian stone tools.

            -National Museum

Sources: Recent Archaeological Research on Aitutaki, Southern Cooks, The Moturakau Shelter, Melinda S. Allen, University of Washington.

Susan E. Schubel:

The National Museum welcomes information on the history of Cook Island artefacts through its website, 

Email:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.     Phone:  00682 27025

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