Hawaii's Intricate Bone Carving Traditions: A Deep Dive

In Hawaii, set against the backdrop of green mountains, blue seas, and golden sands, the intricate art of Polynesian carving thrives, particularly the carving of bones. While many travel to Hawaii for its breathtaking scenery, it's vital to delve deeper and learn about Polynesian carving, a tradition that weaves together history, spirituality, and artistic expression. This practice reveals insights into how the Hawaiian people lived, their beliefs, and their values. In this article, we will provide a detailed exploration of this ancient art form, urging everyone to appreciate not just the natural beauty of the islands but also the rich cultural tapestry that defines them.

Mother's embrace sculpture, shaka tribe

Backgrounds in history

Before Western travelers arrived in Hawaii, the native Hawaiians had established a resilient society deeply influenced by Polynesian carving in Hawaii. Drawing from the abundant resources the land and sea provided, they crafted various tools and ornaments with immense skill, as evident in Polynesian carving events. Nothing was wasted in this culture, where every piece of material was utilized. Hooks, tools, weapons, and decorations, often taught in Polynesian carving lessons, were meticulously crafted out of bones, primarily from fish and birds. These weren't just mere objects; they were also embodiments of spiritual energy, or mana. For those keen on understanding and practicing this craft, there are numerous opportunities to learn how to do Polynesian carving and immerse oneself in the rich heritage of this art form.

The fishhooks, or "makau," are probably the most well-known bone carvings from Hawaii. These hooks, which were made with a lot of skill, were more than just tools for fishing. They stood for power, wealth, and the connection between the people and the sea.

Man, sculpture, shaka tribe

Meanings of Signs and Spirituality

The most important thing to know about Hawaii's bone carving custom is that each piece has a deep spiritual meaning. In Hawaiian cosmology, carvings often show gods, relatives, or animals. Each of these has a special meaning.

In Hawaii, the practice of Polynesian carving is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and traditions. Central to this tradition is the carving of the guardian spirits, known as 'aumakua. These spirits, frequently depicted as animals like the shark or owl through the meticulous art of Polynesian carving in Hawaii, are believed to protect and guide individuals and their families. Many attend Polynesian carving events or take Polynesian carving lessons to learn how to do Polynesian carving and create these symbolic carvings. It's commonly believed that wearing a carving of an 'aumakua will channel its protective energies and blessings to the wearer, showcasing the profound spiritual connection embedded in the craft.

Methods and Equipment

The ancient Hawaiians carefully carved bones with simple tools made of stone, coral, and shark teeth. With these, they were able to get a lot of accuracy and detail, which shows how well they understood the medium.

Since bone is biological, it needs to be handled with care. Too much pressure can cause it to break, and not enough pressure won't make the patterns go deep enough. Most of the time, boiling the bone first made it easier to work with and made the cutting process start. After the pieces were carved, they were cleaned with leaves or fine sand to give them their unique shine.

New Ways of Looking at Things

Bone cutting is an old art form that hasn't changed much over time in terms of how it's done. However, modern artists bring their own ideas and stories to it. Today, carvers often put their own stories into their work or talk about bigger ideas like protecting the environment, globalization, and identity.

Also, current bone Polynesian carvings are no longer limited to the materials that were used in the past. Artists now try out different textures and colors by using bones from different animals in their work. These new ways of looking at the tradition serve as conversations between the past and the present, keeping the tradition alive and important.

Different Points of View: Art or Stealing?

As bone cutting became known around the world, people from places other than Hawaii became interested in it and started doing it. This brings up an important question: when does gratitude become taking something for yourself?

Bone carving is more than just an art form for many native Hawaiians; it's also a way to connect with their ancestors and keep their practices alive. They think that carving knowledge and skills should be passed down within the society to protect its sacredness.

But some people argue for a more open-minded approach, where cultural exchange can help the skill grow and change. They think that the practice can cross borders as long as it is done with respect and understanding.

This argument shows how complicated cultural heritage has become in a globalized world. The key may be to find a balance between remembering the roots and making room for growth.

Keeping the History

Because of how important bone carving practices are, people in Hawaii are working to keep them alive. There are classes in bone carving at schools, community centers, and cultural hubs that focus on both technique and tradition. Elder carvers are very important here because they pass on their knowledge to younger carvers.

Also, events and exhibitions about bone carving give artists a chance to show off their work, which helps both locals and tourists appreciate and understand it.


Hawaii's intricate customs of carving bones show that the islands have a rich cultural history. More than just pretty things, these designs tell the history, beliefs, and hopes of the people who made them. In a world that changes quickly, they are powerful memories of how Hawaii has stayed the same.

Even though the waves of time may erode shores and change the shape of landscapes, customs like carving bones remain and keep the past and the present connected. It tells us to stop, dig deeper, and find the stories that are written not only on bones but also in the soul of Hawaii.

Hands, sculpture, shaka tribe

Our Top FAQs

1. What does the fishhook (called a "makau" in Hawaiian) mean in bone carving?

The fishhook, or "makau," is one of the most important symbols in Hawaiian bone cutting. The'makau' is a fishing tool, but it also represents power, prosperity, and the deep connection between the sea and the Hawaiian people. These hooks are made from bone and are carefully carved. They are also thought to hold mana, which is spiritual energy. Over time, they've become well-known symbols of Hawaii's rich cultural history and its people's close relationship with the sea.

2. How do carvings made of bone show the faith of the Hawaiians?

Bone paintings in Hawaii have a lot to do with religion. Many of these images show gods, ancestors, or animals that are important to the Hawaiian way of life. The guardian spirits, known as 'aumakua, are often shown as animals like sharks or owls. People think that wearing a carving of a 'aumakua will bring its protective spirit and blessings. These pieces are not only works of art, but also physical ways to connect with the spiritual world.

3. How did the ancient Hawaiians carve bones? What tools did they use?

Ancient Hawaiians carved bones with great accuracy using simple tools made of stone, coral, and shark teeth. Most of the time, the process started with cooking the bone to make it easier to work with. Then, the carvers used their tools to cut intricate shapes into the bone, showing how well they knew how to work with it. After the pieces were carved, they were cleaned with fine sand or certain leaves to make them look nicer.

4. How are modern bone ornaments different from the ones people used to make?

Even though the basic methods of bone carving haven't changed much over time, modern artists often use their work to tell personal stories and talk about bigger issues like environmental protection and globalization. Modern bone crafts aren't just made of traditional materials, either. Artists now try out different textures and colors with bones from different animals. These modern versions act as bridges between old ways of doing things and new ways of seeing things, keeping the art form alive and interesting.

5. What are the arguments for and against cutting bones as a form of cultural appropriation?

Because bone carving is popular all over the world, it has been taken up in places other than Hawaii. This has led to arguments about how to show respect for other cultures without stealing from them. Many native Hawaiians think that carving bones is a sacred way to honor their elders and keep their traditions alive, and they think it should stay in the community. On the other hand, some people argue for a more inclusive method that puts more emphasis on cultural exchange and how the art form has changed over time. This ongoing discussion shows how complicated cultural heritage is in a globalized world and how important it is to respect and understand each other.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published