Whale tooth necklace (lei niho palaoa)

From Hawaii, Polynesia
Possibly early 19th century AD

This necklace is made up of a pendant suspended from numerous thin braids of human hair with olona (Touchardia latifolia) fibre cord attached as ties. The hooked pendant itself is made from the tooth of a sperm whale. Hawaiians respected sperm whales. They did not hunt them, but if a whale was beached it was regarded as the property of the king. They ate the flesh, and used the ivory for ornaments and inlay. The Hawaiian name for this type of ornament is lei niho palaoa. Lei is the general term used for a neck or head ornament ,and niho palaoa is the name for a sperm whale tooth. Similar pendants were made from bone, shell, wood or stone.

High ranking men or women wore the lei niho palaoa as an emblem of status. The pendant may be a stylized representation of the head of a deity, and as such befitted persons of high rank. Early examples have smaller pendants and thinner coils than on this example. Hunted walrus ivory was traded to Hawaiians from the nineteenth century. Because it thus became a readily available material, more people were able to own a pendant, and hooks became larger in size. Superficially the appearance of walrus hooks was very similar to those made from whale teeth. The Hawaiian specialist Adrienne Kaeppler considers it possible that some of these late examples were manufactured to trade with, or present to, Europeans and Americans. It would explain the relatively high number in museum and private collections.

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More information


P.H. Buck, Arts and crafts of Hawaii (Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press, 1957)

A.L. Kaeppler, 'A survey of Polynesian art' in Exploring the visual art of Oc (Honolulu, The University Press of Hawaii, 1979)

J.H. Cox, Polynesian culture history: es (Honolulu, B.P. Bishop Museum, Special Publication 56,, 1967)


Length: 61.000 cm

Museum number

AOA 1854,12-23.11


Gift of Lieutenant Alexander Smith


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