Shark Weapons

Here’s a question for you: if we have no written record to where a species may have been found over time, what sort of evidence can we look for in order to determine where it may have once lived? I bet “weaponry” wasn’t the first thing that came to mind, but, sure enough, that’s exactly what Field Museum biologists and anthropologists use to collaboratively puzzle out the distribution of Central Pacific sharks from more than 100 years ago. Our anthropology collection houses a diverse assortment of pretty impressive weapons created between 1840 and 1898, and later obtained by whalers, missionaries, other museums and anthropologists from the people of Kiribati. These assorted spears, daggers, and swords – 123 total in our collection – have the unique feature of being studded with shark teeth. Holes are carefully drilled through the base of the tooth and tied to the palm wood with coconut fibers and, occasionally, woven in place with human hairs. Shark teeth possess unique identifying markers, meaning we can actually use the size and shape of a tooth in order to determine the species from which it came. This might not be such a big deal if they were only using one type of shark for their weaponry— but marine conservation biologist Joshua Drew was able to determine teeth from eight different species. And more importantly than that, only six species of those sharks are still found around Kiribati today, meaning that something may have happened between the end of the 19th century and today that affected the distribution of the spot-tail shark and the dusky shark, the two ‘missing’ species. What caused the sharks to disappear? Well, maybe they were never a part of the local reef community in the first place. It is possible the people of Kiribati were trading with nearby islands, travelers, or whalers in order to obtain teeth from the dusky or spot-tail sharks. But it’s also possible that overfishing could be a cause as to why these two sharks have not been counted in modern ichthyological surveys, as could fluctuating ocean temperatures due to changes in global climate. While we may not be able to determine what caused the sharks to leave, this study serves as an important reminder of how museum collections can serve unpredictable purposes and provide insights to questions we hadn’t previously thought to ask. So how does one protect themself against shark-tooth weaponry? Well, you want to use the resources that are abundant and available to you. They made armor out of coconut fibers and human hair, and then would wear the blowfish as an armored helmet. There’s also a lot of really interesting variety in these weapons, like they don’t all follow one kind of cookie cutter pattern in any kind of “make or model” way. You have ones that are single shafts and they have multiple rows of teeth on them. Ones that are two-pronged, this one is four-pronged, one only has one tooth on it, some are 25 feet tall. I don’t know how you would fight with something like that. How would I fight with something like that? I would just show up to battle with it and I have a feeling the other people would probably back off.

100 thoughts on “Shark Weapons

  1. Although it'd require some skill, I can easily imagine how one would use such a long weapon. You just hold it horizontally, balance it (that's the required skill), and run forward, piercing your enemies.

  2. Can you do an episode on how eating sharks can actually be bad for you because of how much mercury is in their diet? Or just about conversation and general population numbers?

  3. Their weapons could be easier to make if they had available saw shark "saws" to use instead of individual shark teeth.

  4. I would think that part of figuring out why those two sharks were no longer in the area would be to figure out a) if they ever were indigenous to the area (as you mentioned) and b) when they disappeared. But, how would you figure that out? Unless you found specific bones in the area, or had witnesses who could attest to when they (or their ancestors) last saw them. Are those sharks still indigenous to nearby areas?

  5. Your intellect and enthusiasm is such a beautiful thing. If only I could find someone like you but 30 years older…

  6. I love it when different fields (biology/anthropology/history/etc) work together to figure something out <3 

    Also honestly, if someone showed up to my battle with a 7m+ long weapon, I`d probably laugh instead of run away, and consider them really incompetent. I saw a theory below in the comments that this might be used from up in the trees, which sounds to me like a good possibility. 

  7. "They don't all follow one cookie cutter pattern…" Well duh, the cookie cutter shark is way too small to make a weapon out of! Unless you just throw them at your enemies, I suppose.

  8. She has birds on her shirt, what an enthusiastic biologist! Her career has spilled over into her fashion choice. You're so cool Emily!

  9. Is there evidence of these weapons actually being used for battle, or would some of them have been mostly ceremonial? Either way, what a cool way to use shark teeth.

  10. Were these weapons actually used in battle or were they ceremonial?   Some of those swords look very unbalanced and unwieldy. 

  11. Totally misinterpreted the title as weapons used by sharks, rather than made from sharks. 

    6/10 would not recommend. :

  12. This museum still refuses return stolen sacred ceremonial artifacts to their respected cultures who have asked for them back! Shed some light on that part of the museum and their ideology!

  13. the really long one was probably some kind of booby trap, to stop an enemy advancing, you would lay this on the ground and any enemy without thick enough shoes would get cut badly.

    It still has  b-?…

  14. does this woman suffer from a mild form of epilepsy? why does she randomly jerk her entire upper body around when she talks?

  15. I've done some training with (English) Civil War pikes and they're not as long as 25 feet but they go to about 18 feet, which is plenty long enough! They're useful in mass formations for defence (particularly against cavalry) and to present a formidable row of spikes to the enemy. Notably some regiments had shorter, 12-14" pikes, which proved a big disadvantage against other divisions of pike. 

    The Macedonian pike (sarissa) was around 20 feet in length and was used very aggressively, again in large formations.

    I would imagine that this would be used with others (armed with similar weapons) in a formation, either defensively or aggressively to attack, relying on intimidation and a mass of spikes/spear points to win ground.

  16. this armor and these weapons seem so fragile. I wonder how badly the indegenious people were crushed by colonial powers. (i think spain took over the area in the 1500's)

  17. those weapons are used at a distance like Pike! They are used to defend charging enemies, horses, etc.

  18. Wing Chun and Chen Tai Chi both have long pole forms although those poles are only between 11 and 13 ft.

  19. No the 25 foot long weapon was probably put in a pit or ravine for somebody to fall into…

    I'm totally guessing…I have no clue how it would be used….

  20. Never gonna happen in India. It's so sad that all we Indians want to do is provide tech support. I am saddened by how constricted our view as a race is. We just want to go to US and work as a slave for some IT company. I mean not to undermine the importance of that but it's saddening we do not care for real history and culture, except when it comes to religion and archaic notions of women.

  21. 25ft spears In parts of the world are sometimes used in the back and middle ranks. they would wave them overhead of the ranks ahead to deflect ranged weapons coming in.

    They make great weapons to stop a mounted charge. Jam the back end hard into the groubd at an angle. Brace it with your back foot. then set a grim face and absolutely don't move. The movie "The 13th warrior" has a great example.

    Finally this could be used by the 4th line stabbing over the heads and shoulders of the lines in front. It would require considerable strength to pierce through with deadly force, but then again even having a shark tipped spear waving around your face while fending off 3 other lines of people in front if you would be distracting to say the least.

  22. Soooo you're saying you would speak softly and carry a big stick. Sounds like a good plan but I'd bring that weaponized raccoon too just in case.

  23. Good topic for a video, terrible implementation. I wanted to see more shark weapons rather than hear about how to use the teeth to learn about shark distribution

  24. The 25-ft long spears, I have a hunch weapons were built for trial and error back then. Just look at some of the earliest "flying" machines. :p

  25. Armor and weapons made of human hair, coconut fiber, blowfish, and sharks just sounds like something straight out of a video game.

  26. The HEMA in me really wants to learn more about these weapons/armor. But I know no one's ever going to let me do cutting tests with these things.

  27. A 25ft spear seems far more practical that those multi-pronged "swords". 20ft pikes have been used by different armies historically to great effect and without having done further research maybe it could have been ceremonial or decorative.

  28. 2:57 you would be in a group of warriors all holding long spears like that and in close formation you would face off a group of enemies holding spears that are hopefully a bit shorter than yours,… that way of fighting probably predates the old Greeks.
    The ridiculous length of those spears seems to be the result of a sort of tribal arms race
    As the late and great George Carlin said war is nothing but dick wagging 🙂

  29. I'm from Kiribati Island. Those weapon are very weak and easily to break but they are very poison and spiritual! The long weapon design for long distance combat and the short one is for close combat. The Amor design to cover your skin from the shark teeth to protect you from the poison spell, once you get cat by the blade you won't be able to move.

  30. Some of this weapons are really solid build from the stem of the oldest coconut tree, those can be used frequently while other weapons, especially small ones, are just strong enough to penetrate halfway through opponents and also they easily break from their mid-section or just at their tip so that part of the weapon will stay inside the opponent spreading poison or causing infection…most cruel reason is that he may bleed to death or die trying to get it out note that some shark teeth on the weapons are facing backwards so if it hits your organs probably cause damage bulling it out… the way any weapon made at this century are not for war but are made for trade or artifacts so they lack true quality of a war weapon

  31. the question is there a weapon that is 25 feet long with a metal sharp End……Well if yes Place shark teeth on the sides……oh its not a weapon its for harvesting apples and oranges…Ohh come on Really

  32. believe it or not, The Gilbert warriors wore these armors to avoid shark teeth tearing their skins and living organs. No where else in other pacific countries wore armor, they would just show their body and tattoos and how big they are. Since the whole Kiribati used the same weapons, short weapons for close combat and long for long range battles. i'd figured the helmet would be useful in a close combat mode too, just smashing your head to your opponent that is not wearing any helmet.

  33. I usually take a small shark about the size of a two-handed sword, fill it with plaster (non-heating, unless you prefer a cooked style weapon) wait for it to dry and I am ready to bash.

    The teeth will eventually get knocked out with use and the plaster will pulverize. When the club begins to sag and look more like the half-empty sack of father christmas, it is usually a good sign that it is time to get a fresh shark – but until then it's a lot of fun.

    I like to trim off the pelvic and dorsal fins for aerodynamics, but I always sell them off to the Chinese guy down at the corner shop so there is no waste. "All of the animal is used" as they say. Used to cover my video rental expenses, but now – with the internet – it just pays for the crisps and band aids …

  34. Shark teeth used in/on weapons are not a "unique" feature to them, its used throughout the pacific, prominently so in Polynesian ethnicities.

  35. They have discovered obsidian tools made from obsidian found only in the PNW in Florida. Not exactly "near by"

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