Black and white image of an asian man with glasses examining artifacts.
History Unearthed

A look inside the groundbreaking discoveries of Yosihiko Sinoto, the man who laid the foundation of modern archaeology in the Pacific.

Text By
Travis Hancock
Images courtesy of
Yosihiko Sinoto

In 1962, a Japanese man rode a bicycle around the northeast end of the French Polynesian island of Huahine. He cast his eyes from side to side, scanning the ground for tiny flashes of white bone or abalone. Yosihiko Sinoto was looking for ancient fishhooks. The curious man was an odd sight to the locals at first, but over time, Sinoto—the man they came to know as “Taote,” or doctor, through his four decades of fieldwork re-erecting their ancestors’ marae stones—became a most familiar figure.

On that bike ride, Sinoto, then 38 years old, was working toward a grand theory of Polynesian migration based on the interisland evolution of early fishhook design. A cartographic visualization of his now widely accepted final results takes up a massive fishhook-dotted wall of the Pacific Hall at Bishop Museum, where Sinoto served as senior anthropologist until he passed away in October 2017 at the age of 93. But that recognition was a long way off in 1962, and with eyes full of Huahine’s fishhooks, Sinoto overlooked the site, Fa’ahia, which contained the evidence that would make his theory float.

“The shore has a lot of coral and debris, and there’s a lagoon filled with sand,” Sinoto explained in the book Curve of the Fishhook: An Archaeologist in Polynesia. “I didn’t pay much attention to the area because it didn’t seem to be a very habitable place.” However, an 18th century sketch by John Webber, the artist who accompanied Captain Cook, depicts a lively Fa’ahia—shoreline huts and a fleet of canoes coming in and out of the lagoon. Sinoto wouldn’t make the connection until a decade later, when a hotel construction crew started uncovering odd shapes in Fa‘ahia’s briny mud, presumed to be a whale skeleton. The architect called in Sinoto, who then excavated something massive and skeletal, but made of wood.

“The ancient canoe we found would have been about 65 feet long,” Sinoto explained. It was the first time such a voyaging vessel had ever been found, complete with steering and paddling oars, a 39-foot mast, and planks of siding, some still sporting the fibrous cords that bound them together. “We finally had the material evidence to prove that Polynesians 1,000 years ago had the knowledge and abilities to construct large voyaging canoes and navigate across thousands of miles of open ocean,” he wrote.

Prior to Sinoto’s arrival in Hawai‘i in 1954, Western archaeologists believed that Polynesia couldn’t have been populated more than a few hundred years prior to Cook’s arrival in 1778, and hence, rarely looked below the topsoil for artifacts. When Sinoto decided, on a whim, to stop over in the Hawaiian Islands on his way from Japan to graduate school in California, he met one of the only people looking deeper, his eventual mentor, Kenneth Emory.

Emory, then head of Bishop Museum’s anthropology department, lured Sinoto into putting off school to work with him at Ka Lae, the southern tip of Hawai‘i Island. Sinoto was hooked, and soon brought his wife, Kazuko, and son, Aki, to join him. Camping with his family, working alongside Emory, Sinoto introduced carbon dating and a more careful style of stratigraphic excavation to Ka Lae’s kīpuka, strips of land untouched by lava flows. The delicate process unearthed a trove of fragile fishhooks that launched Sinoto’s migration theory.

Beginning in 1954, Sinoto followed the changing curves and barbs of the artifacts back in time, from Hawai‘i to the Marquesas to Tahiti and Huahine, and onto tiny atolls in Micronesia. To do so, he surveyed uninhabited, harborless islands, which sometimes required him to leap from small boats onto sharp coral reefs. On inhabited islands, Sinoto naturally connected with the people, shifting his focus to the restoration of sites, which brought him back again repeatedly to Huahine’s ancient temples.

“The last time he went [to Huahine] he was really happy because people finally realized what was going on,” explains Aki Sinoto, Yosihiko Sinoto’s son, who became an established archaeologist himself. “My father said, ‘Oh, it took me 40 years to get the indigenous people to appreciate their own heritage.’ That’s what the focus is, that they get interested in their own past so that outside people don’t have to come in and do research and tell them about their own history.”

O‘ahu-based archaeologist Eric Komori was one of those working with Sinoto on digs in French Polynesia, including the ongoing canoe excavation. “His attention to detail constantly amazes me,” Komori says. He recalls a trek they took in 1982 in Anahulu Valley on O‘ahu’s North Shore. From the rear of the pack, Sinoto called for the group to stop in the middle of a meadow. “Right by the side of the trail that we’d been walking on all summer was this rock with a beautiful petroglyph on it,” Komori says. “He’s just constantly doing stuff like that.”

But nobody calls Sinoto lucky. Komori remembers the Japanese expression Sinoto used when, after great difficulty, he secured a permanent work visa to stay at Bishop Museum and fill Emory’s position. “He said, ‘Honewouzumeru,’ and that means you intend to stay some place, you are committed, not just for your lifetime, but that you give your life to that,” Komori says. “It literally means you bury your bones there.” Through a life of turning Hawai‘i’s islands inside out, fishing for stones and bony hooks, Sinoto adopted them as his kulāiwi—his field of bones, his home.

Halekulani’s “For You, Everything” program offers guests complimentary access to Bishop Museum, the largest Asia-Pacific natural history collection in the world, which also features displays of ancient Hawaiian crafts and exquisite royal artifacts.

Black and white image of an asian man with glasses examining artifacts.

Yosihiko Sinoto, the senior anthropologist at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, examines artifacts in the early 1960s.

Black and white photo of three men in the valley

Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, 1965. Sinoto, assisted by a local foreman and Mari Mari Kellum, who would expand on Sinoto’s work with her thesis, “Sites and Settlement in Hane Valley, Marquesas.”

Map of Polynesian islands.

While pottery is fundamental to establishing chronology for archaeologists, Sinoto discovered that fish hooks could stand in its place.

Black and white photo of men digging

Excavation site, Atuona Bay, Hiva Oa, 1963. Sinoto believed there were multiple periods of migration from the Marquesas and Society Islands, a theory that also corresponds with many Polynesian legends.

Black and white image of two men at an excavation site.

Sinoto and Kenneth Emory, an American anthropologist who helped shape modern anthropology in Oceania, at an excavation site in Tiapa’a, Maupiti, French Polynesia, 1960. When Emory retired from Bishop Museum in 1970, Sinoto became chair of anthropology.

Black and white photo of various aged people holding signs, with a dog in the foreground.

Villagers of Maeva, Huahine express gratitude to Dr. Sinoto by holding signs with names of marae (religious structures) he helped restore. “My father said, ‘It took me 40 years to get the indigenous people to appreciate their own heritage.’ That’s the focus, that they get interested in their own past so outside people don’t have to come in and tell them about their own history.”—Aki Sinoto, archaeologist and son of Sinoto

Black and white photo of a group of kids smiling for the camera.

Sinoto with Maeva children, Huahine, 1967. In his field work, Sinoto connected with island inhabitants across generations.

Black and white photo of men at an excavation site. Hand written text overlays image.

In early archaeology of the Pacific, the Western world displayed a tendency to overlook the region’s complex past and see it as a backwater, at once savage and simplistically romantic. Sinoto’s career was dominated by his efforts to counter such myths with hard evidence.

Aged color photo of people at an excavation site.
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