Starting as early as 1500 BCE in the Mariana Islands, people used distinctive rigging of cut and drilled pieces of cowrie shells, as parts of compound devices, for attracting octopuses.
The ancient octopus lures from the Mariana Islands were made by positioning small cut and drilled pieces of cowrie shells (Cypraea sp.) — a type of sea snail and a favorite food of octopuses — fastened over small grooved stone sinkers.
This tradition started as early as 1500-1100 BCE, and it continued here at least through 500 BCE and perhaps as late as 1000 CE.
The time range overlapped with similar findings in Tonga and other Pacific Islands after 1100 BCE, thereby suggesting that the remote overseas communities shared knowledge of octopus lures through mutual ancestral traditions or through cross-regional contacts.
“That’s back to the time when people were first living in the Mariana Islands,” said Dr. Michael Carson, an archaeologist in the Micronesian Area Research Center at the University of Guam.
“So we think these could be the oldest octopus lures in the entire Pacific region and, in fact, the oldest in the world.”
The oldest octopus lures came from Sanhalom near the House of Taga in Tinian and from Unai Bapot in Saipan.
Other locations include Achugao in Saipan, Unai Chulu in Tinian, and Mochom at Mangilao Golf Course, Tarague Beach, and Ritidian Beach Cave in Guam.
“Did the ancient CHamoru people — the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands — invent this adaptation to their environment during the time when they first lived in the islands?” Dr. Carson said.
“That’s a possibility; the other being that they brought the tradition with them from their former homeland.”
“However, no artifacts of this kind have yet been discovered in the potential homelands of the first Marianas settlers.”
If the CHamoru people did invent the first octopus lures, it provides new insight into their ingenuity and ability to problem solve — having to create novel and specialized ways to live in a new environment and take advantage of an available food source.
“It tells us that this kind of food resource was important enough for them that they invented something very particular to trap these foods,” Dr. Carson said.
“We can’t say that it contributed to a massive percentage of their diet — it probably did not — but it was important enough that it became what we would call a ‘tradition’ in archaeology.”
“The next question to look at is whether there are similar objects anywhere else from an older time,” he said.
“Purely from an archaeology standpoint, knowing the oldest of something is always important — because then you can track how things change through time.”
“The only other place that would be is in the overseas homeland area for the first CHamoru people moving to the Marianas. So we would look in islands in Southeast Asia and Taiwan for those findings.”
The findings were published in the journal World Archaeology.
Mike T. Carson & Hsiao-chun Hung. 2021. Let’s catch octopus for dinner: ancient inventions of octopus lures in the Mariana Islands of the remote tropical pacific. World Archaeology 53 (4): 599-614; doi: 10.1080/00438243.2021.1930134