Mangai, the Polynesian hook of Easter Island

mangai Natural History Museum of Santiago
Mangai maea | Photo: Natural History Museum of Santiago

The hook or mangai, in the Rapanui language, is an artifact spread throughout Polynesia and was considered one of the most precious objects that could be had on an island, since through its use, the inhabitants obtained the necessary food for their livelihood.


Mangai, a mythical hook

The hook has played a leading role in the Polynesian creation myths. One of them describes how the god Maui used a hook and fishing line to “fish” the islands from the bottom of the sea and bring them to the surface.

These mythological associations and the very fundamental use of the tool can explain why people valued the hook so much. It took a long time to make one of these valuable pieces, so they were inherited from parents to children as a family jewel.


Types of mangai

Mangai ivi de hueso | Foto: Museo Fonck
Mangai ivi de hueso | Fhoto: Fonck Musuem

The hooks of Easter Island are the ones that show more variations compared to the rest found in other islands of Polynesia. Several types are distinguished. The smallest known as rou and piko were made of human or bird bone, had a straighter and more open curve and were used for fishing small fish on the shore.

The larger hooks called mangai, were used for deep-sea fishing of larger fish, especially tuna. The shape of the curve is more closed than in the rou and the hook is directed inwards.

Mangai ivi vere vere | Imagen: Stepehn Chauvet
Mangai ivi vere vere | Image: Stephen Chauvet
Mangai maea | Imagen: Stepehn Chauvet
Mangai maea | Image: Stephen Chauvet

Among the mangai, it is possible to distinguish the material that was used for its manufacture. The mangai ivi was made of one piece of bone. The use of human bone material is understood due to the absence of other large animals from which sufficient surface could be extracted for larger models.

Within the bone mangai, there is a singular type that is the mangai vere vere, a hook composed of two pieces: the one that forms a curve is called mata (eye) and the other va’e (foot). The first one has a notch in the lower part where it is coupled to the va’e and tied closely with a string of braided fibers of hau hau (Triumfetta semitriloba), a local shrub.

Finally, there are the mangai made of stone, specifically polished basalt, called mangai maea, or mangai kahi, since they were intended for tuna fishing (kahi in the Rapanui language).

The method for making bone and stone hooks is similar. A general outline was made on the material, a central hole that was enlarged and given the desired shape was drilled, and finished with the filing and polishing that used to be done with coral.

Mangai Maea half finished and one already finished from the collection of the Sebastian Englert Museum
Mangai Maea half finished and one already finished from the collection of the Sebastian Englert Museum

In his book on Pacific hooks, the anthropologist and collector H. G. Beasley indicates that the polished stone hooks of Easter Island are extraordinary in shape and finish and considered them a work of art. He also notes that they have not been found anywhere else in the Pacific with the exception of New Zealand, where it is called he’i matua.


A large majority of the old hooks that have been collected since the early 19th century on Easter Island, have been found in tombs of the ariki (tribal chiefs) buried in the ahu (ceremonial platforms), along with spears with obsidian tip. Although it seems that they could be used for fishing because of their shape (others not because of their too closed circle), perhaps they could be considered more as a symbol of authority and status.

It is curious that many more hooks have been found on the north coast of the island than in the south. It may be that the fishing was more abundant in the north, where the hooks found are also larger. Other theories indicate that they could belong to the clans installed in that area, especially the powerful Miru clan, descendant of King Hotu Matu’a, which would reinforce mangai as a symbol of power.

Mangai petroglyphs next to an octopus on Papa Mangai on the Papa Vaka site
Mangai petroglyphs next to an octopus on Papa Mangai on the Papa Vaka site

More evidence of the above can be seen in the area known as Papa Vaka, where the highest concentration of mangai-shaped petroglyphs of the entire island is found. There you can see a rock, called precisely Papa Mangai, where next to the beautiful and original silhouette of an octopus you can see several engravings of hooks on its surface.

Hooks were also a common motif in tattoo designs, how Katherine Routledge observed during her stay, which adds a meaning of protection and fortune to the mangai.


A more gloomy alternative interpretation of the oversized rapanui fishing hooks, developed by Martinsson-Wallin, states that they could be used for a more macabre type of “fishing.” On certain islands of Eastern Polynesia, this kind of “fishing” consisted of the sacrifice of human beings, which were suspended from a tree by a large hook inserted in the victim’s mouth.

The origin of this terrible practice may be in a Polynesian legend, which tells as two fishermen who were going to offer their catch to the gods, ate the fish themselves. Repentant after the feast, they took the remains to the priest, who was not content to receive a thorn as an offering, and was even more incensed when he learned that the fishermen had eaten the fish. So he decided to sacrifice the offenders and offer them, instead of a dishonored fish. The two men were hung from a tree and presented to the god as i’a avae raraa (fish with long legs).

Since these sacrifices were widespread in Eastern Polynesia, it cannot be ruled out that they took place in Rapa Nui. It is not unreasonable to think that the Miru clan or dominant clan developed the mangai if they wanted to celebrate human sacrifices to maintain their power and authority.

The legend of Mangai Ivi Tangata

Manga ivi
Manga ivi | Photo: Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum

There is an ancient legend that attributes to a man named Ure Avai, the first manufacture of mangai ivi tangata, the hook made of human bone.

Ure Avai was a young fisherman who lived in Hanga Piko. Despite descending from an old family of fishermen, he was not happy with the results of his fishing. He, like the rest of the fishermen on the island, used hooks made of stone, mangai maea, but they did not give the expected result in catching tunas, since most of the fish escaped when he tried to get them into the boat from the deep waters.

One afternoon, after returning sadly to his house after a little fruitful day, he decided to pray to Mea Kahi, the god of fishing, to ask for help in his work. At night, while he was sleeping, he had a dream. The spirit of an ancestor (tupuna) called Tirakoka appeared and told him why he was not successful in fishing. Then he ordered him to go to the cave where his father’s remains were buried, and take a piece of femur to build a hook.


The next day, still confused with the vision, he decided to go to the cave where his father was buried. He took a piece of bone from the thigh, and began to carve a hook according to the instructions given to him by the spirit. When he had it ready, he embarked on his canoe and headed offshore, away from his companions, to test his new tool. Once the mangai was launched, he began to catch fish very easily, returning to port with large quantities of fish.

The constant success in fishing, first aroused the astonishment and then the envy of the rest of the fishermen, who did not understand how Ure Avai got such amount of fish. They asked him about his secret, but he did not want to reveal it, which caused an enmity with his fellow workers. Then one day, the other fishermen, desperate to know their hidden arts, follow Ure to his favorite fishing ground and face him. Ure trying to keep his secret loses his life in the fight, with which they manage to search into his ship and find his new bone hook.

People say that since then, the fishermen of Rapa Nui used the mangai ivi tangata to obtain abundant fishing, so that there never was more lack of food to take to their families and that the evil spirit of Ure Avai continues to roam the island.

The mangai today

Extraordinary horse-shaped mangai ivi from the Tadeo-Lili Foundation
Extraordinary horse-shaped mangai ivi from the Tadeo-Lili Foundation

The belief that the mana (energy) of expert fishermen could be transmitted through their bones, once deceased, was common in many parts of the South Pacific.

The mangai is currently the most popular pendant among the inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Polynesia, and its use has spread throughout the world. It is used as an amulet of prosperity, abundance, protection and good luck, especially for those who enter the sea, but it has also become a valuable decorative object due to its original aesthetic.

Interesting historical specimens can be seen in the Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum on Easter Island and in the Fonck Museum in Viña del Mar. As an example of beautiful contemporary craftsmanship, the bone mangai carved by Tadeo Teao stand out at the Tadeo-Lili Foundation.

Anzuelo de estilo hawaiano | Foto: Makani Hawaii
Hawaiian style hook | Photo: Makani Hawaii

In the shops and markets of Easter Island you can buy mangai made of bone, stone, wood or metal, following the old local designs. It is also possible to find mangai made in Hawaii by brands such as Makani Hawaii that differ by a more stylized design, and a curious way to tie the braided cord made of vegetable fiber.