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Niho Palaoa and Pre-Contact Hawai'ian Arts

David Howard Hitchcock (American, 1861-1943), Big Island of Hawaii.
Sold for $30,750

Whaling was extremely important to the development of many countries in the early nineteenth century because of the fat that lit lamps and greased machines, leading to the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the arrival of whaling crews in 1820, Hawai’i had a much different relationship with the whale. When overfishing became an issue in the Atlantic, many whalers turned to the Pacific and started docking in Hawai’i. In the same period, Calvinist missionaries arrived in Hawai’i, and major conflict ensued between the native population, missionaries, and whalers. A commercial market was born on the islands with such an influx of people while Calvinists and Christians worked to covert Hawai’ians. Combined with the prolific spread of disease from sailors, many traditions and ways of life began changing drastically for many Hawai’ians. 

In pre-contact Hawai’i, life was imbued with a deep sense of spirituality. Society was governed by the ‘Aikapu, a polytheistic system of religious, political, and social laws. Nothing in Hawai’ian life occurred without the will and recognition of the Gods in the philosophy that informed the ‘Aikapu system. The Hawai’ians followed the general pattern of religion that their ancestors brought from central Polynesia. These Gods presided over various more mundane tasks of life to different ranks and social powers. ‘Aumākua, or ancestral Gods, guarded and guided members of their family and were honored by those genealogically linked to them. Though regarded as invisible spirits, the gods were symbolized by material objects. 

Hawaiian Necklace, “Lei Niho Palaoa,” early 19th century.
Sold for $18,800

It was common in pre-contact Hawai’i to convert sperm-whale teeth from neck pendants into hook-shaped lei niho palaoa. Today, the lei palaoa, or niho palaoa, is considered one of the most spectacular Hawai’ian ornaments. The term lei applies to neck and head ornaments while palaoa refers to the whale tooth. The niho palaoa, woven together with locks of human hair,identified Hawai’ian nobility and is thought to indicate their genealogical descent from the gods. 

Hawaiian Neck Pendant, Niho Palaoa, early to mid-19th century.

Its hook shape is made originally with sperm-whale tooth and suspended with two coils of braided human hair. The cords are attached to the upper ends of the coils, which tie at the back of the neck. The coils hang over the chest with the free end of the hook pointing forward. The hook itself is an upright shank with the hook bend curving back at an obtuse angle. The shanks are straight, flat in front, and convex laterally at the back. The thickness from the front to back averages about half the width so that the top section approaches a semicircle, and the hook bend widens out from the shank junction as seen here.

Hawaiian Necklace, Lei Niho Palaoa, c. first quarter 19th century.
Sold for $7,800

Typically, the hair coils are long loops of a continuous length of eight-ply square braid made of human hair. The total length of hair braid in the two coils tends to be an astonishing 1,700 ft. In pre-contact Hawai’i, whale ivory that washed ashore was considered sacred, so niho palaoa was one of the most powerful symbols of status and spiritual connection. 

Hawaiian Whale Tooth Pendant, Niho Palaoa.
Sold for $7,500

Interest in early Hawai’ian artifacts has always been strong amongst collectors of Oceanic art; the Hawaiian people are skillful in creating wonderfully spiritual and artistic objects from elements of the natural world, such as whale teeth. Collectors worldwide are eager to add the next great object to their collection. Perhaps you have that next treasure to sell?


Consider reading:
The Polynesian Art of Tongan War Clubs

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