Shark Teeth Weapons

Natural History Museum collections have been used for a novel study: the past biodiversity of a remote collection of Pacific coral islands. Joshua Drew from Columbia University and colleagues have just published a paper (see below) reporting on their identification of shark teeth used in weapons made by Kiribati people from the Gilbert Islands over a hundred years ago and now in the collection of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

Having no metal, but a tradition of hunting the plentiful sharks, the I-Kiribati people used shark teeth to edge coconut wood weapons, both swords and fierce-looking tridents. While the team found plenty of teeth from species of sharks that still roam the local coral reefs, like tiger sharks, two species were represented that no longer exist around the Gilbert Islands, dusky and spottail sharks. The team were excited that museum collections could be used to shed light on past ecosystems, and to highlight changes in those ecosystems over time.

Photograph of shark tooth trident

An example of a Gilbertese shark tooth trident. Credit: Joshua Drew, Columbia University via PLoS ONE.

You don’t need to go to America to see these amazing objects. Many collections were made of objects made by Gilbert Islanders in the nineteenth century which now live in anthropology museums across the world. In the UK, the Pitt Rivers Museum has a trident on display in its weapons gallery, though only with tiger and grey nurse shark teeth. It is accompanied by armour the Kiribati men wore to protect themselves from these deadly weapons, a helmet of porcupine fish skin, a war belt of stingray skin and a suit of coconut fibre, with a protective panel behind the head to protect warriors from the stones thrown by their own women.

Helmet from the Gilbert Islands made of porcupine fish skin. PRM 1884.32.31  Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

Helmet from the Gilbert Islands made of porcupine fish skin. PRM 1884.32.31 Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.


Specimens from Natural History Museums are often used to chart changes in the geographical spread or appearance of species over time, and now perhaps anthropological collections can be explored for the same information.


Drew J, Philipp C, Westneat MW (2013) Shark Tooth Weapons from the 19th Century Reflect Shifting Baselines in Central Pacific Predator Assemblies. PLoS ONE 8(4): e59855. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059855

Kim Biddulph

Kim is a humanities graduate who realised, after working in museums for ten years, that she should have studied science. She has converted to biology, mainly through the medium of spiders. Like most people, Kim was scared of spiders, but after having a child has decided not to be and to learn all about them instead. Kim has also had the great honour of working on the education programme for local schools at Darwin's family home, Down House in Kent.

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