Whale tooth pendant (rei puta)

Maori, possibly 18th century AD
New Zealand, Polynesia

Carved pendants, known as a rei puta (rei meaning 'whale ivory' and puta 'hole',) were worn by Maori men at the time of Cook's first visit to New Zealand (1768-71). The official artist Sydney Parkinson depicted a chief's son named Te Kuukuu from the Bay of Islands wearing such a pendant. He also wears a comb, probably of whalebone, an ear pendant - almost certainly of nephrite - and a woven flax cloak. His hair is arranged in the topknot style popular at the time, and his face is tattooed with designs typical of those used in the northern part of New Zealand. (The pen and wash portrait dated 1769 entitled Portrait of a New Zeland Man is now in the British Library, Add. MS 23920, f.54). It is believed that this rei puta was collected on Cook's first voyage because of its similarity to such contemporary illustrations.

Characteristically, the lower part of the pendant represents a face with carved and painted eyes. Some examples include a nose and/or a mouth. The significance of these is uncertain. The pendant has a plaited neck cord which would be fastened by its loop with the toggle, made of bird bone. Rei puta later declined in popularity, as men increasingly favoured hei tiki, neck pendants in human form made from nephrite or bone.

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More information


D.C. Starzecka (ed.), Maori art and culture, 2nd ed. (London, The British Museum Press, 1998)

A. Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings bet (Auckland, London, Viking, 1991)

P.H. Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa), The coming of the Maori (Wellington, Maori Purposes Fund Board, 1982)

H.D. Skinner, 'Notes on the 'Rei-Puta' type of pendant', Journal of the Polynesian So-2, 32 (1923), pp. 31-34


Length: 13.500 cm (excluding cord)

Museum number

AOA NZ 159


From Captain Cook's voyages


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