Auckland Museum has in the collection a unique tangible link between Māori and the East Polynesian homeland. A fishing lure made from tropical black-lipped pearl shell (Pinctada margaritifera) was found in a 1964 archaeological excavation at Tairua on the Coromandel Peninsula. The lure is highly significant because it was made in East Polynesia and brought here, on a waka, with the Polynesian settlers of Aotearoa.
Erosion and excavation
Situated at the base of Paku, the prominent hill at the entrance to Tairua Harbour, the site was actively eroding in 1959 when the first excavation was carried out by Roger Green of the University of Auckland. The bones of birds recovered indicated the site could be assigned to the beginning of the Māori occupation sequence in New Zealand.
Continuing erosion of the site led to a second excavation in 1964 when the tropical pearl shell lure was found. The occupation layer was 12 feet below the top of the sand dune and another layer, dated to the late 1600s-early 1700s, was above it. Tropical pearl shell does not grow in the cooler waters of New Zealand, so it was immediately recognised as an important find.
In the mid-1960s the shape was not known from Eastern Polynesia, the homeland of the Māori settlers but an excavation at Hane in the Marquesas in 1967 uncovered two very similar lure shanks, confirming a Polynesian ancestry to the form. For some time after settlement of Aotearoa the shape continued to be fashioned from bone and stone, suggesting it was an efficient design.
Dating the lure
The shank is 50mm long and would have had a bone point attached with a fibre cord, using the grooves on either side of the shank to hold the fibre secure. The fish hook would have been towed through the water by a line attached to the dorso-ventral (top to bottom) hole. The shiny surface of the pearl shell lure imitated a small fish and attracted larger predatory fish - a method still used by anglers today.
Radiocarbon dating of shells from the same layer confirmed an early age of between the early-mid 1300s (it is not possible with radiocarbon dating to produce an exact year). Presence of moa and other extinct birds such as the raven (Corvus antipodum) support the early age of the occupation, as do locally extinct birds such as the kakapo and North Island weka. There were leg bones of nine moa ranging from Anomalopterx didiformis the smallest species (at about 115 cm to the top of the head) to Dinornis novaezealandiae the largest species at 149-250 cm tall, depending on whether male or female. Tui, kaka, kereru, kokako, red fronted parakeet, little blue penguin, species of duck, and petrels were also caught and eaten. Southern fur seals were also caught. The fish remains were mainly snapper, which wouldn't be attracted to the pearl shell lure, but also kahawai which is a pelagic feeder and would be very attracted to the lure.
The site can be interpreted as a small temporary camp similar to many others on the coast of the Coromandel Peninsula and where locally available food was caught. Circular cooking firescoops were uncovered near stone flaking areas where tools were made or repaired.
Tairua Pearl Shell Lure by Auckland Museum on Sketchfab
A unique find
Despite over 60 years of professional archaeological excavations in New Zealand, the pearl shell lure is the only object from Polynesia to have been found in situ in an excavation.
A shell chisel made from tropical Terebra species is the only other known tool but its context is not quite as secure although it was found at Wairau Bar, Marlborough.
No material of New Zealand origin has been found in the Polynesian homeland area of Cook Islands, Marquesas, Society Islands, or Austral Islands suggesting that return voyages, if they happened, were infrequent and the likelihood of finding anything is low.
Davidson, J., Findlater, A., Fyfe, R., MacDonald, J., & Marshall, B. (2011). 'Connections with Hawaiki: the evidence of a shell tool from Wairau Bar, Marlborough, New Zealand'. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 2 (2): 93-102.
Green, R. C. (1967). 'Sources of New Zealand’s East Polynesian culture: the evidence of a pearl shell lure shank'. Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania 2: 81-90.
Schmidt, M. and Higham, T. (1998). 'Sources of New Zealand’s East Polynesian culture revisited: the radiocarbon chronology of the Tairua archaeological site, New Zealand'. Journal of the Polynesian Society 107 (4):395-403.
Smart, C. and Green, R. C. (1962). 'A stratified dune site at Tairua, Coromandel'. Dominion Museum Records in Ethnology 1 (7): 243-266.
Cite this article
Tairua trolling lure. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 2 October 2015. Updated: 10 March 2016.