Volume 63 1954 > Volume 63, No. 2 > Notes on ivory in Hawaii, by Schuyler Cammann, p 133-140
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MANY modern museums and private collections of Pacific material, all over the world, have ivory objects from old Hawaii. Yet these have never been very seriously studied, and a number of casual assumptions regarding them are generally taken for granted. The two most common misconceptions about Hawaiian ivories are (1) that they date from post-European times, more specifically, after the coming of the whale-ships, and (2) that whale's tooth was the only material used to make them.

Ample evidence to disprove both these contentions has long been available. The idea of a post-European origin of the custom is dimissed by reports in the account of Captain Cook's third expedition, which discovered and explored these islands in 1778-79; while the myth that all the ivory comes from a single material is easily exposed by examination of the objects themselves.

Probably the most characteristic and best known of the ivory objects from Hawaii is the necklace pendant hook. Its shape was apparently unique to these islands, although it seems to have had close affinities with pendants found elsewhere in the Pacific 1. This hook was generally suspended from a cluster of cords made of braided human hair, the whole necklace being known as a lei niho palaoa 2. Captain - 134 James King, the expedition's second-in-command, who succeeded as leader of the expedition after Captain Cook was murdered by the natives, first described this article in detail in an entry of March 1779. He said that it was “an ornament in the form of the handle of a cup, about two inches long and half an inch broad, made of wood, stone, or ivory, finely polished, which is hung about the neck by fine threads of twisted hair, doubled sometime an hundred fold” 3

When Captain Cook himself gave a preliminary account of the native Hawaiian costume in the previous year, at the time of the first contact, he had referred to these necklaces somewhat more vaguely, and described their pendant hooks as being made of wood, stone, or shell 4. His failure to list ivory was probably an oversight, based on his first hasty observations. It certainly does not mean that the Hawaiian people did not know the use of ivory until the following year, when Captain King recorded the ivory hooks. For, in going on to tell about the women's bracelets (kupe'e), Cook mentioned one type which was made from pieces of black wood interspersed with pieces of polished ivory, strung together on a cord 5. Similar bracelets have been referred to by later writers on old Hawaiian culture as “post-European,” but this account shows clearly that they must have been made and worn before European contact 6.

Still a third use of ivory was reported by Captain King. He wrote that the Hawaiian women wore “little figures of the turtle, neatly formed of wood or ivory, tied on their fingers in the manner we wear rings” 7. Though this usage is somewhat less spectacular than the two previous ones, it is still important, not only for its mention of ivory but for comparison with the wearing of turtle amulets in other regions.

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In none of these cases did the early English writers ever specify what kind of ivory was being used. Later scholars and museum workers have almost always taken for granted that the Hawaiian carvers had been using sperm whale's teeth, and the museum labels invariably announce that the hook pendants and bracelet plaques were carved from this substance 8. However, it now turns out from examination of some of the objects that that was an unwarranted simplification of facts, because many of them were actually made of walrus ivory.

On a brief passing visit to Hawaii in the spring of 1951, I noticed a fine hook of walrus ivory in the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu 9. However, being then much more intent on tracking down examples of carving in “Hornbill ivory,” I merely noted its number on a card, and gave it no further attention until recently 10. The incident was recalled to me when I found another pendant hook of walrus ivory in the Hawaiian collection of the University Museum, in Philadelphia, while gathering material for an article on carvings in walrus tusk in various parts of the world 11. Meanwhile, Dr. Penniman of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, - 136 published an example from his musuem 12. Two more then turned up in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and after inquiry several others were discovered in the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, along with some of the bracelet beads also in walrus ivory.

I then wrote to Dr. Spoehr, the new Director of the Bishop Museum, to ask what was known about walrus ivory in Hawaii, and his prompt reply reported that Mr. E. W. Bryan Jnr., the curator of the collections, had just discovered thirty-nine of the pendant hooks made of walrus ivory, together with a considerable number of the kupe'e beads carved from the same substance. This very high proportion of carvings in walrus ivory suggests that many more examples will doubtless come to light in other collections, after people have learned to distinguish between the products of whale's tooth and those carved from walrus tusks.

Actually, the distinction between the two is really quite simple. Walrus tusk, in cross section, has a large central core area of an apparently crystalline substance, representing a secondary deposit of dentine, which fills the hollow interior of the tusk as it continues to grow outward during the life of the animal. This core portion is always somewhat darker than the layer of “pure” ivory which surrounds it, and it is strongly translucent in thin sections, in marked contrast to the dense and opaque outer portions 13.

These features are especially apparent on the Hawiian pendant hooks made of walrus ivory, as may be seen in the illustration. A band of the crystalline core substance is always visible on the inside of the upper shank, running down it from the flattened top to the hook proper, below; and the centre of the hook itself is entirely composed of it. As the hook section is never very thick, and the core material penetrates it completely, this is a good place to try the translucence test.

In contrast to the walrus tusk, a whale's tooth is completely dense and opaque, of uniform substance throughout. - 137 It may have some fine concentric growth rings of slightly different colour, in cross section, and it may have a small hole in the centre. These features are clearly visible at the base of the whale's tooth hooks. But there is nothing either crystalline or translucent about this material, so there is no possible chance of mistaking it for walrus ivory. 14.

Still a third form of ivory is mentioned in the Bishop Museum Handbook for the Hawiian collections, which lists a hook made of elephant ivory from China 15. But there is no chance of mistaking either elephant or mammoth ivory for whale tooth or walrus tusk; since both of these have fine patterns of intersecting lines which easily distinguish them from the two latter substances 16.

As must be apparent, these tests depend primarily on simple observation, and no equipment of any kind is needed, except perhaps a bright light to test the translucence of the walrus ivory.

Mr. Bryan reports that some of the walrus ivory hooks in the Bishop Museum have a square hole through the shank, instead of the familiar round one 17. Up to now, this has been considered a pre-European trait, and if it was, this raises some interesting questions about the antiquity of walrus ivory in Hawaii. As we have seen, the English discoverers of Hawaii reported the use of ivory but failed to specify the kind, so their accounts are of no help to us here. As yet, I have been unable to ascertain whether they brought back to Europe any examples of the native ivorywork which might possibly be traced and tested.

The authorities of the Bishop Museum reported to me that a few of their hooks have histories connected with them, but that the records are not necessarily old enough to make them pre-European 18. Some of the examples to be seen there, and elsewhere, are very dark and antique-looking. But - 138 unfortunately a darkened appearance is not a safe criterion either, as all discolouration may not be an effect of age. The Hawaiian natives had the habit of deliberately altering the colour of their ivories by wrapping pieces in ti leaves and then smoking them over a fire of burning sugar cane, to impart richer shades of yellow or brown 19.

If the pendant hooks were indeed made of walrus ivory, as well as whale's tooth, before the Europeans came, it would be necessary to explain how the raw material for them could have reached Hawaii. The Polynesians who settled there had had to make a tremendously long voyage to reach there in the first place, and it is possible that some of their descendants might have made other long trips by sea to the north or north-east, even as far as the Aleutians, where they could have acquired tusks in barter.

It is also possible that the once-vast walrus herds might formerly have ranged much farther south in the Pacific, as they did in the Atlantic, before they were practically exterminated in the greedy hunt for their valuable teeth and oil. Also, occasional animals might have found their way down the West Coast of North America and thence out to Hawaii, along the California Current, which flows abruptly westward from the continental mass to pass the islands. Even if they had, it would have been a most difficult job for the natives to kill a stray walrus before the days of metal harpoons or guns, because of the beast's extremely tough hide.

The earliest opportunity for walrus ivory to reach Hawaii by trade would have been in 1779, when Captain Cook's expedition returned there after exploring in the Northern Pacific. While they were cruising to the north of Alaska, food had run low, and the Englishmen were compelled to hunt walrus for meat, as one of the plates in the subsequent account of the voyage portrays most graphically 20. fourth volume.

When the ships returned to the Hawaiian Islands, it is probable that Cook's men had brought some of the tusks with them, and that the natives could have acquired some by theft or barter. The descriptions of the voyage stress the fact that the natives made strenuous efforts to remove anything that - 139 was not firmly nailed down, while barter was one of the chief pastimes of the ships' crews during their stay in these islands.

Whether or not walrus tusks came to Hawaii in the time of Captain Cook, or even long before that, they must have been comparatively rare there until the nineteenth century. However, even before the turn of the century many of them must have been brought down from the North by British and American ships. Beginning about 1787, American ships engaged in a three-way trade with furs from the North-west Coast and Hawaiian sandalwood taken to Canton to exchange for tea, and the North-west Coast was near the source of walrus ivory. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the whaleships regularly put in there for water and provisions during their long three-year voyages, in the course of which they often cruised in North Pacific waters where the walrus herds lived, and then south again by way of Hawaii to the Antarctic whaling grounds.

Increased supply of whale and walrus ivory no doubt made the ivory hooks much more common, as we no longer read of many examples in wood or stone; and bracelet beads of ivory must also have been much more numerous. The native Hawaiians are said to have continued making the ivory pendant hooks as late as the 1890's, and they still wore them on special occasions into the 1920's 21, but the custom has since died out with the passing of the old island culture.

The claim has been made that European whalers also brought walrus ivory to Fiji. A recent catalogue for an exhibition on the arts of the South Seas stated that objects made from these arctic tusks are not uncommon in Fiji collections; but the authors used as an illustration of this a carved image which was made from two sperm whale's teeth—as was clearly stated in the records of the museum which had lent it—so their argument was not very convincing 22. Careful examination of other small ivory images from Fiji, and of numerous Fijian necklaces of split sea-mammal teeth - 140 known as tambua, have shown that all of them were made from the teeth of the sperm whale or the killer whale, but none from walrus tusks. It would still be profitable to examine all collections of ivory from the Pacific Islands, to see whether or not the whalers ever did import walrus tusks to such ivory-using regions as Fiji, the Marquesas, or even New Zealand, to be carved by the local craftsmen.

To conclude: the statements by Captains Cook and King show that the Hawaiians were wearing objects carved from ivory at the time of the first discovery; while new evidence from actual objects proves that the Hawaiians made extensive use of walrus ivory as well as sperm whale's tooth, possibly from pre-contact times. These facts, although they add something to our knowledge of the old Hawaiian culture, are still quite tantalizing, as they pose several new questions, all of which suggest possible lines for further research. In the first place, more archaeological work is needed to try to determine how early the use of ivory began in Hawaii. Secondly, more investigation and more careful labelling is required, in museums and private collections, to distinguish the Hawaiian objects of walrus ivory from those made of whale's teeeth. (It is not at all difficult to tell them apart, as we have seen, because of the unique core substance in the walrus tusk.) This long overdue separation of the two main types should help to determine the relative proportion of walrus ivory to whale tooth, as well as offering some definitive clues as to the relative age of the former. Lastly, it would also be most helpful to apply this simple observation test to objects from other areas in the Pacific Islands, to see if walrus ivory was formerly more widely used than is now assumed, due to diffusion of the raw material by whalers, or other sources. The whole subject of the use of walrus ivory in the Pacific Islands is still at a pioneer stage. As more becomes known, it will doubtless throw new light on other neglected aspects in the history of the island cultures.

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Photograph by Reuben Goldberg. Hawaiian royal necklace (lei niho palaoa) with a hook of walrus ivory, in the University Museum, Philadelphia.

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1   See the comments by Archey in J.P.S., Vol. 43 (1934), p. 245, and those by Skinner in J.P.S., Vol. 43 (1934), pp. 112-113 and in J.P.S., Vol. 45 (1936), pp. 128-129.
2   This name refers to the type of necklace as a whole, and not to the hook itself. Another type of necklace for suspending these hooks was made of a string of ornamental kukui nuts, and hence caled lei kukui. See Marcia Brown Bishop, Hawaiian Life of the Pre-European Period (Salem, Mass., 1940), Plate 12, no. 452. Incidentally, both the hooks illustrated there have the recognizable characteristics of walrus ivory.
3   Capt. James Cook and Capt. James King, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, 2nd ed. (London, 1785), Vol III, pp. 134-135. (In following references this source will be simply abbreviated as Voyage.)
4   Ibid,. Vol. II, p. 232
5   Ibid.
6   M. B. Bishop, op. cit., pp. 38-39, states that the bracelet beads and bosses of both whale's tooth and walrus ivory were post-European.
7   Voyage, Vol. III, p. 139. Finger rings as such seem to have come into Hawaiian culture rather late. See the Bishop Museum Handbook, Part I, “The Hawaiian Collections” (Honolulu, 1915), p. 53.
8   The Bishop Museum Handbook, loc. cit., describes a lei niho palaoa (No. 1314) as bearing a whale tooth carved into a hook, but the accompanying illustration (fig. 42) clearly shows that both this one and an adjoining hook (No. 1274) are really made of walrus ivory. Compare also Miss Bishop's remarks in Hawaiian Life, p. 38, with the two hooks she illustrates in Plate XII, both of which are obviously of walrus ivory. Such instances are by no means rare. For a single exception see note 12, below.
9   No. 4951.
10   For “Hornbill ivory” see the writer's articles in the University Museum Bulletin, Vol. 15, no. 4 (December, 1950), and the Sarawak Museum Journal, Vol 5, no. 3 (November, 1951). I, then, found a handsome Chinese buckle of this substance in the Honolulu Academy of Arts (illustrated in Antiques Magazine for July, 1954), and a fine set of Hornbill jewellery (like those illustrated in the Sarawak Museum Journal, Plate IVa), on exhibition among the former possessions of Queen Liliuokalani, in Queen Emma's summer villa, outside Honolulu. Both items were of course importations.
11   For the results of this study on walrus ivory, see the University Museum Bulletin, Vo. 18, no. 3 (September, 1954).
12   See T. K. Penniman, Pictures of Walrus Ivory and other Animal Teeth, etc., Pitt Rivers Museum Occasional Papers on Technology, 5 (Oxford, 1952), p. 26.
13   These features are shown in greatly enlarged detail in ibid., Plates VIII and IX.
14   See ibid., Plate X.
15   Op. cit., p. 53. Another Hawaiian hair necklace with a hook of elephant ivory has recently come to light in the storage collections of the University Museum in Philadelphia.
16   See Penniman, Plates I-III.
17   Mr. Bryan kindly enclosed a note with this information in the letter from Dr. Spoehr cited in the text above.
18   From the same note.
19   See the Bishop Museum Handbook, edition cited, p. 53.
20   Voyage, Vol. II, pp. 454 ff., and Plate 52 in the oversized
21   Dr. K. P. Emory kindly supplied this information in another note enclosed in Dr. Spoehr's letter.
22   Linton and Wingert, Arts of the South Seas (New York, 1946), p. 19, text and illustration. The figure which they wrongly identified had been lent to the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art by the University Museum, Philadelphi.