The Historical Importance of Hā’uke’uke Sea Urchins

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By Marshall Weisler, Archaeologist

Few people routinely eat sea urchins today, but were they important to ancient diets? A new study reports that sea urchins were essential food centuries ago. 

Unlike the long-spined wana, hā’uke’uke or helmet urchin, with its armour-like plates covering its domed shell, is adapted to live amongst ‘opihi on the wave-pounded, windward shorelines of all the Hawaiian Islands.

Walking along the rocky north coast of west Molokai from Hinanaulua past Mo‘omomi to ‘Īlio Point, you’ll notice piles of white, sun-bleached ‘opihi shells, the remains of ancient meals accumulated over the past 500 years. Amongst the ‘opihi shells you will need to look closely to see the short, thick and flat purple spines and the small plate-like body parts of hā’uke’uke. 

Was hā’uke’uke essential to ancient diets? What do we know about its use? To understand these questions, during the past 25 years I excavated more than 10 habitation sites along the north coast of west Molokai that were occupied centuries ago. From these sites, I studied more than 185,000 hā’uke’uke fragments weighing 25 pounds. 

When we inventory the number of ‘opihi and hā’uke’uke found in archaeological sites along the study area and contrast their nutritional contribution, it was surprising to find that helmet urchins supplied more than 80 percent of fat and nearly 40 percent of protein of all shellfish found in these ancient sites. Hā’uke’uke provided essential nutrients as not everyone, centuries ago, had access to what were then considered high status foods like pig and dog—rich sources of protein and fat. Additionally, urchin roe, or poke ‘ina, is a rich source of vitamins A, E, and K, including phosphorus, riboflavin, and folate which are low in traditional Polynesian foods like sweet potato, kalo, bananas and breadfruit. 

I also found that a few hā’uke’uke spines from the study sites were faceted for use as abrading tools — most likely to smooth bone during the final stages of fishhook manufacture. 

We also developed a method for estimating the size of helmet urchins from their mouth parts, like measuring a person’s upper leg bone to estimate stature. Urchin mouth parts have five pairs of triangular-shaped pieces on their flat underside for scraping food from the shoreline rocks. From live hā’uke’uke collected along the shoreline, we measured the length of mouth parts and the corresponding weight of the whole urchins. We then measured the size of urchin mouth parts found in ancient habitation sites and shrines to estimate their size.  We determined that larger urchins, likely of greater cultural value, were placed on shrines more than those urchins deposited as food waste at numerous habitation sites. 

In conclusion, centuries ago, hā’uke’uke urchins were used for food, tools and placed as ritual offerings on shrines at many archaeological sites situated along the north coast of west Molokai.  

The detailed findings of this study were recently published in the Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology. Mahalo to numerous Ho‘olehua homestead folks, the Nature Conservancy, and the Molokai Land Trust for supporting this research.


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