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Fishhook matau

Fishhook matau

Place: Tahiti & Society Islands
Category: Fishing & hunting

mother-of-pearl, cord, purau wood, Tahiti and the Society Islands, l. 2.3–4.7 cm, Inv. Oz 388 (left)

Humphrey Nos. 264 to 270: ‘Seven fish-hooks of various Shapes and sizes, made of Mother o’pearl, from ditto [Society Isles].’

Humphrey No. 271: ‘another [fish-hook] with a wooden float to it from ditto [Society Isles].’

Of the group of the Humphrey Nos. 264-270, only six and not seven specimens are still held in the Göttingen Collection. Furthermore, fish-hook Oz 390 has been lost, so that only six fish-hooks of the same type are grouped together here.

The fish-hooks are simple examples made from a piece of mother-of-pearl with a more or less rounded-off rectangular cross-section. According to Kaeppler (1978b: 119), the mother-of-pearl material comes from the shell of Meleagrina margaritifera. In each case, one side of the fish-hook is a glossy white, while the other side shimmers more darkly, attaining a dark-brown shade. All the specimens have a support at the upper end of the shank where strings made of various plant fibres are attached. In Oz 382 (=Humphrey No. 271), a string lashing leads to a small piece of pale, light wood (length 4.5 cm; Ø 0.7 cm). The piece of purau wood (Hibiscus tiliaceus) served as a float (cf. Handy 1932:82).

Fish-hook Oz 387 (Humphrey No. 270) differs slightly from the others in form. Overall, it is broader in cross-section, and also widens towards the upper end of the shank; the upper edge of the shank is not cut off straight but is bevelled, with a notch on the inner side leading outwards to the support which in this piece is particularly exposed. The notch and the support are wound round twice with a twisted string made of plant fibres, and tied to the notched corner of the shank. This fish-hook corresponds to the type depicted in Nordhoff (1930: 160) and was presumably used to catch the albacore, aahi (red tuna), specifically on Moorea. Fishing for albacore was carried out from boats with a ‘crane-like superstructure’, tira, instead of the bamboo rod customary in bonito fishing (cf. Nordhoff 1930: 139, 141ff.). According to Nordhoff, it is likely that the other fish-hooks were used to catch dolphins, mahimahi and mahimahi tari’a. Mother-of-pearl fish-hooks corresponding to the Göttingen example are depicted in Parkinson (1773: 75 PI. 13, Nos. 18, 22, 23). J R Forster (1783: 401) called them ‘mattan.’ Every fisherman knew how to make them. According to Banks (1896: 156), the time spent on this was allegedly less than a quarter of an hour.

Kaeppler (1978b: 119) described two matau in the collections in Rome and Florence which resemble the Göttingen specimens, with the exception of Oz 387. Gundolf Krüger


Banks, Joseph, Journal of the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Banks During Captain Cook’s First Voyage in H.M.S. Endeavour in 1768-71 to Terra del Fuego. Otahite, New Zealand, Australia, the Dutch East Indies etc., by Sir Joseph D Hooker, London, 1896.

Forster, Georg, Bemerkungen über Gegenstande der physischen Erdbeschreibung, Naturgeschichte und sittlichen Philosophie auf seiner Reise um die Welt gesammlet. Uebersetzt und mit Anmerkungen vermehrt von dessen Sohn und Reisegefährten Georg Forster, Berlin, 1783.

Handy, ES Craighill, Houses, Boats, and Fishing in the Society Islands, Bernice P Bishop Museum Bulletin, vol. 90, Honolulu, 1932.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L, Cook Voyage Artifacts in Leningrad, Berne and Florence Museums, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1978b.

Nordhoff, Charles, ‘Notes on the off-shore fishing of the Society Islands’, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 1930, vol. 39, pp. 137-262.

Parkinson, Sydney, A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas in his Majesty’s Ship, the Endeavour, London, 1773.

Related artefacts

Fishhook matau, Inv. Oz 382
Fishhook matau, Inv. Oz 387
Fishhook matau, Inv. Oz 389
Fishhook matau, Hanover 1854, No. 7
Fishhook matau, Hanover 1854, No. 8


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