Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Whale-tooth Necklace (Lei Niho Palaoa)

early 19th century
United States, Hawai'i
Walrus ivory, human hair, fiber
W. 4 1/4 x D. 16 in. (10.8 x 40.6 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 353
The hook-shaped pendants known as lei niho palaoa were worn by Hawaiian chiefs as marks of their noble birth and status. An element of formal regalia for both sexes, the necklaces were worn on important occasions and also, reportedly, by men in battle. The interpretation of the distinctive hook-shape remains uncertain. It may represent a stylized tongue, or alternatively, the crescent-shaped form may metaphorically allude to the role of the necklace as a vessel for supernatural power (mana).
The pendants typically formed the centerpiece of necklaces made of a single continuous length of finely braided human hair, up to 1,700 feet long, gathered into two large coils. Derived from the head, the most supernaturally powerful part of the body, hair was a sacred substance whose presence enhanced the mana of the necklace and its noble wearer.
Private collection, United Kingdom; [K. John Hewett, London, until 1961]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1961, on permanent loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1961–1978

Cook, James. A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean: Undertaken, by the Command of His Majesty, for Making Discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere; Performed under the Direction of Captains Cook, Clerke, and Gore, in His Majesty's Ships the Resolution and Discovery, in the Year. London: W. and A. Strahan, 1784, Vol. 2, p. 219.

Buck, Peter. Arts and Crafts of Hawaii. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1957.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L. Artificial Curiosities: Being an Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook on the Occasion of the European Discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by Captain Cook. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication, Vol. vol. 65. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1978.

Rose, Roger G. Hawai'i: The Royal Isles. Vol. vol. 67. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1980.

Kirch, Patrick Vinton. Feathered Gods and Fishhooks: An Introduction to Hawaiian Archaeology and Prehistory. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985.

Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, 194, 318-9.

Related Objects


Date: 9th–11th century (?) Medium: Vesicular basalt Accession: 1976.194 On view in:Gallery 353

Stick God (Akua Ka'ai)

Date: 18th–early 19th century Medium: Wood Accession: 1979.206.1625 On view in:Gallery 353


Date: 18th–19th century Medium: Whalebone Accession: 1979.206.1587 On view in:Not on view


Date: 10th century Medium: Ivory (walrus) Accession: 1979.8.2 On view in:Gallery 356


Date: 4th century (?) Medium: Ivory (walrus) Accession: 1977.165.3 On view in:Gallery 356