Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Harpooning Sharks in Polynesia


In pre-European times the Maori used a bird-spear to which a barbed bone point was attached. Hundreds of these points may be seen in museums and private collections, and adequate accounts of the methods of use are on record. The use of spears in taking flounders is also on record, but in this case the accounts given of methods of use cannot be described as adequate. I do not know of any reference to the use of the harpoon by the Maori, though there are in collections a number of harpoon points, and it is thus certain that the harpoon was used.

In his bulletin on fishing methods and devices of the Maori, Elsdon Best describes the harpooning of a shark by a Maori at Gisborne. He does not say that the method used was a pre-European method, but he is not likely to have quoted the account unless such was his belief. Mr. Best says: “As a token of what may occur even in these times, a description of a deliberate attack on a shark is inserted here, as taken from the Wellington Dominion of February, 1928. Mr. Ferris, I may say, is a descendant of old-time sea-ranging and shark-slaying Polynesians:

‘Twelve feet in length and over 4001b. in weight, a shark harpooned by Mr. C. Ferris at Wainui Beach, Gisborne, recently gave visitors to the beach a fine display of fighting before it was pulled ashore (says an exchange). Mr. Ferris, whose exploits in the direction of shark-catching had attracted attention, amazed the onlookers as he waded into the surf quietly casting strips of stingray bait about him to entice the monster. The shark swam closer and closer to the harpooner, and eventually came within reach of the latter's heavy weapon, which Mr. Ferris sunk deep into the great fish with a single stroke. The shark appeared to be aware of the presence of a stranger in the water, but in spite of its suspicions it had been enticed nearer and nearer, making swift snapping rushes as piece after piece of bait was cast upon the water. With the harpoon driven deep into his side, near the heart, the shark leaped wildly, in an effort to free himself, lashing the surface of the water to a crimson-tinted foam. When he tired of his struggles the shark was drawn ashore and dispatched. The harpooner's nerve and speed of movement were the subject of much comment.’”

This is, so far as the present writer is aware, the only record of Maori harpooning, apart from harpooning as a feature of European whaling. But it is not impossible that Ferris was here following the traditional pre-European Maori method.

The harpoon-points found on old Maori sites vary in shape and size but are, on the average, very much stouter than bird-spear points. They are stouter, also, than the points tentatively classified in the Otago Museum as flounder-spear points. All harpoon-points must have been detachable from their shafts when in active use, as is indicated by the perforation which is always present. There is usually a single stout barb, but there is often a pair, one on either side, and sometimes two pairs. No examples have yet been found with flax cord attachment or with the wooden shaft, and we are therefore at present ignorant of the nature of attachment or shaft.

The harpoon-points here figured have been found at Chatham Island, in Otago, Canterbury, and Marlborough, on the east coast of Wellington province, and in the Auckland province. Though familiar with most of the material in collections in the Nelson province, the Wanganui district, and Taranaki, I have not seen a harpoon-point from these districts. It is therefore probable that harpoon-points, if used in these districts, were made of wood and are in consequence not found on archaeological sites.

Variety 1—Harpoon-heads with a single foot at base. Usually these have two barbs. Fig. 1 is a fine specimen in bone from Goat cave, Banks peninsula. Fig. 2 is a wooden (? kowhai) harpoon-point from the same site. Fig. 3 is a fine bone specimen, with one barb, from Warrington, Otago. Fig. 4 is a broken specimen from Goat cave, much smaller than the preceding three. The same is true of fig. 5, from the mouth of the Clarence river. This specimen must be unfinished, as there is no sign of a hole.

Variety 2—Harpoon-heads with a groove to accommodate the top of the shaft. Fig. 6, small bone harpoon-head from Black Head, east coast, with single foot, single barb, and groove which has been cut by drilling five holes along
- 65
the line of the scarf on the side opposite to the barb. Fig. 7, from the Shag river mouth, is a weathered specimen in bone closely allied to fig. 6, except that the scarf is cut below the barb. Fig. 8, in bone, from Centre island, resembles fig. 7, except that the foot is absent. Fig. 9, from the Dunedin district, lacks a foot and must have had a very abbreviated barb. Fig. 10, a very small but beautifully-shaped harpoon-head from Porangahau, is most conveniently placed here, though closely allied to variety 1.

Variety 3—Harpoon-heads with single large barb and ungrooved shaft. Fig. 11 is a stout bone example from Waipapapa (?). Fig. 12 is a larger, but broken, harpoon-head from Normanby, on the coast south of Timaru. Fig. 13 is a similar but smaller broken harpoon-head from Tumbledown bay, Banks peninsula.

Variety 4—Harpoon-heads with a single barb and bifid base. This variety is closely allied to variety 1. Fig. 14 is a fine example in bone from Little Papanui, Otago peninsula. Closely allied to it is a piece of human bone from The Kaik, Otago peninsula, which I have figured 2 as an amulet, but which may have been ultilitarian. Fig. 15 is an allied piece from the Dunedin district. Fig. 16, unfinished, moa-bone, is from Warrington, north of Dunedin. Fig. 17 is an unfinished moa-bone example from White bay, Marlborough.

Variety 5—Harpoon-heads with a pair of barbs above and a bifid base amounting to a second pair of barbs. Edges serrated. Fig. 18 is an excellent example of this variety in bone, from Oatara. Fig. 19 is of human bone and is from Akaroa. Fig. 20, from the same locality, is made from whale bone.

Variety 6—Miscellaneous. Fig. 21, whale bone, from the Dunedin district, has been larger than any previously figured, but is too much broken to be classified with any certainty. There is in the Otago museum a barbed bone-point of which the extant fragments are twelve inches long. It is presumably a huge harpoon-point, but no sign of a perforation has survived and the base is lacking. Fig. 22 is a rather elaborate bone example from Manakau heads.

FIG. 1, FIG. 2, FIG. 3
- 67

FIG. 4, FIG. 5, FIG. 6, FIG. 7
- 68

FIG. 8, FIG. 9, FIG. 10, FIG. 11, FIG. 12, FIG. 13
- 69

FIG. 14, FIG. 15, FIG. 16, FIG. 17
- 70

FIG. 18, FIG. 19, FIG. 20, FIG. 21, FIG. 22
- 71

FIG. 23, FIG. 24, FIG. 25, FIG. 26
- 72
Fig. 23 is a whale-ivory harpoon-head from Matarakau, Chatham island, falling within variety 1, and standing closest to figs. 4 and 5. This Moriori piece by itself would demonstrate what is indicated by the variety and wide distribution of harpoon heads in New Zealand, namely the considerable antiquity of this cuture element. At the time of writing there is no stratigraphical evidence on this point, though the presence of harpoon-points on what are recognized as old sites—Shag river mouth and Little Papanui—suggests antiquity.

Proof that the harpoon-head is an old element in Polynesian culture and not a local evolution or invention in the New Zealand-Chatham area is furnished by Marquesan harpoon-heads in the museums of London, Cologne, and Zurich, figs. 23, 24, 25. These, though larger than any figured in this paper, are not so large as the fragmentary Otago piece mentioned above, and some of their features correspond in detail in a remarkable way with features of figs. 1, 3, and 10. If there is, as I think we must conclude, a close relationship between the harpoon-heads of the Marquesas and those of New Zealand-Chathams, we must look for the connecting link in the Society group. At present, harpoon-heads are not known there, but we are justified in expecting that excavation will reveal them.

Fig. 1—Bone. Goat cave, Banks peninsula. Bollon's collection. Dominion Museum.

Fig. 2—Wood. Goat cave. Vangioni collection.

Fig. 3—Whale bone. Warrington, Otago. D. 34.525, Fels Fund, Otago Museum.

Fig. 4—Broken. Bone. Goat cave. Bollon's collection, Dominion Museum.

Fig. 5—Unfinished. Damaged. Burnt bone. Mouth of Clarence river. D. 35.577, Fels Fund, Otago Museum.

Fig. 6—Bone. Black Head, East Coast. Simcox collection.

Fig. 7—Broken. Weathered. Moa bone. Shag river mouth. D. 30.734, Otago Museum.

- 73
Fig. 8—Weathered. Whale bone. Centre island. D. 27. 1392. Chapman collection, Otago Museum.

Fig. 9—Bone. Otago. D. 27.513. John White collection. Otago Museum. Figured Edge-Partington, album 3, pl. 179, no. 4.

Fig. 10—Bone. Porangahau, East Coast. Simcox collection.

Fig. 11—Bone. Waipapapa. Bollon's collection, Dominion Museum.

Fig. 12—Broken. Bone. Normanby, Timaru. Irvine collection.

Fig. 13—Broken. Bone. Tumbledown bay, Banks peninsula. Saunders collection.

Fig. 14—Damaged. Moa bone. Little Papanui, Otago peninsula. D. 32.1400, Otago Museum.

Fig. 15—Damaged. Bone. Otago. D. 27.512, John White collection, Otago Museum. Figured Edge-Partington, album 3, pl. 179, no. 3.

Fig. 16—Unfinished. Moa bone. Warrington, Otago. D. 25.268, Dempster collection, Otago Museum.

Fig. 17—Unfinished. Moa bone. White bay, Marlborough. Marsh collection.

Fig. 18—Bone. Otara. Bollon's collection. Dominion Museum.

Fig. 19—Human bone. Akaroa. Vangioni collection.

Fig. 20—Whale bone. Akaroa. Vangioni collection.

Fig. 21—Broken whale bone. D. 27.149, John White collection, Otago Museum.

Fig. 22—Broken. Bone. Manakau heads. Bollon's collection, Dominion Museum.

Fig. 23—Whale ivory. Matarakau, Chatham island. D. 24.131, Otago Museum.

Fig. 24—Whale bone. From von den Steinen, Die Marquesaner und Ihre Kunst, vol. 3a, p. 3. British Museum.

Fig. 25—Whale bone. Ibid. Cologne.

Fig. 26—Wood(?), with lanyard. Ibid. Zurich (Pres. Horner, 1804).

1 Dominion Museum Bulletin 12, 1929, p. 49.
2 J.P.S., vol. 43, p. 26, fig. 90.

Sales Enquires This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Academic, Insitutional and Artist Enquires This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Unfortunately due to being a small institution without paid staff we have no facility to answer general inquiries or comments.