Polynesia Ancestors
White Shark © Adrian Hewitt.

Polynesia encompasses a wide range of islands in the central and southern Pacific Ocean and is often geographically defined by the Polynesian Triangle, formed by the islands of Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island. Inhabitants of these islands share many cultural similarities.

Hawaii is known for its relationship with nature and many native Hawaiians to this day maintain a spiritual connection to the natural world. It is believed that the forms of nature convey important messages and animals who exhibit unusual behaviour are often associated with family ancestors, who use animal forms to communicate with and protect their family. These forms are known within these communities as ‘aumakua’. Sharks tend to be highly respected by Polynesians as they are often associated with aumakua. It is considered extremely bad luck to harm or kill the form of a family ancestor or protector.

Ancient Polynesian Culture

Polynesian culture is woven with a rich past of ancient legends and stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. In total there are nine Hawaiian Gods, listed in the Hawaiian dictionary, associated with sharks. Shark Gods were believed to be the guardians of the sea and protectors of the people of Hawaii. Although in some stories there are references to shark men who are able to transform into shark form at will and who were often portrayed as ferocious beasts with a ravenous appetite for human flesh.

Sharks were also considered an important source of food and tools. Drum heads and sandpaper were made from shark skin and shark teeth were used to craft various tools. Teeth from the most feared sharks, such as the White Shark and Tiger Shark, were particularly useful for crafting weapons. In ancient times Hawaiian chiefs invented a dangerous sport which involved catching these sharks (known as niuhi) and it was believed that the consumption of niuhi eyes could provide premonitions of the future.

Shark Calling

Shark Calling is an old tradition that is still practised today. In the Solomon Islands this is a playful event, where sharks are called into shallow waters so that children may ride on their backs. However in other areas of Polynesia, such as Tonga, Shark Callers will paddle out to deep water in wooden canoes to kill sharks for food. It is believed that sharks are a resource provided by the spirits of family ancestors to sustain their community.

The Shark Callers lure the sharks to their canoes using sound. The callers sing a traditional shark calling song while also shaking a coconut rattle on the surface of the water, drawing inquisitive sharks to the canoe. The sharks are then lassoed and beaten to death. Shark Calling is a dangerous and sacred ritual involving strict protocol. Preparations involve cleansing of the body at least two days prior to the hunt and prayer to the shark spirit, which is believed to create a respectful connection between the caller and the shark. The callers hunt in seasons, which are marked by signs from their ancestors, such as when certain plants start to bloom. These ancestral laws are strictly adhered to when harvesting all animals and ensure a sustainable food source every year.

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