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King Kamehameha's Arrow - How a mystery was solved


The arrow is now in the permanent collection of the Australian Museum, Sydney, which acquired it directly from relatives of Mrs Cook in the late 1880s. Samples of the bone were sent to DNA laboratories in the University of Queensland and the University of Auckland, New Zealand. The results would mark the end of a personal quest that started nearly five years ago.

And the results? Both laboratories have confirmed that the DNA recovered from the material is not human, in fact it is not even bone!

Further analysis is required to determine exactly what the "bone" material is and what animal it is from. The most likely candidates are antler from caribou, or ivory from walrus, both of which would confirm the origins of the arrow as North-West North America. This will confirm the origins proposed by the museum's ethnographers who likened the design and construction of the arrow to those used in the past by the Inuit peoples of North America.

Visitors to Sydney can see the arrow on display at the Australian Museum in a new exhibition "Uncovered: Treasures of the Australian Museum". The exhibition runs until February 2005 and also includes a feathered cape presented to Cook by King Kalani'opu in 1778 - well they look like feathers!

I am left wondering whether King Kamehameha knew the truth of the arrow's origins when he brought it to London 180 years ago? I have mixed emotions about the DNA results. It would have been nice to have found the last mortal remains of the Captain and given him a decent burial instead of the bone lying in the drawer of a museum. It would have provided a "closure" to his death, even though that happened 225 years ago.

On the other hand there are many museums around the world that contain artifacts claiming similar close connections with Captain Cook. The legend associated with the arrow has been proved to be false, but there are other items that need equally close scrutiny to determine whether or not they are genuine. I am extremely grateful to The Australian Museum for having the courage to allow their arrow to be subjected to the technology of the 21st century. On this occasion technology has "won", but I am sure that one of these days we are all in for a big surprise when modern technology proves one of the Cook legends to be true – and it will happen, one day."

Cliff Thornton


Cliff Thornton  holding a replica of the arrow
Cliff Thornton holding a replica of the arrow

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 4, volume 27, number 3 (2004).

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Margaret, thank you for your kind words, although I fear that you overestimate my abilities and my influence. I hope that Tony Horwitz's publishers will consider reprinting all of his books, as he wrote such readable accounts. If they wishe to produce a 2nd edition of his Captain Cook book, I would be pleased to provide relevant data, but I will leave them to find an editor.
By Cliff Thornton on 9/1/2019 10:55:33 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Tony Horwitz died earlier this year: might we see a reprint of his book? An epilogue on things like the DNA test of the Arrow would update it well? - Off you go, Cliff, you're talented, you can organise this. - and many thanks in advance.
By Margaret on 8/31/2019 4:38:34 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Thanks Shawn, I hope that you enjoyed reading Tony Horwitz's book. There are two locks of hair alleged to be from James Cook. One is in the coffin-shaped "ditty box" held by the NSW State Library, and another is held within a mourning ring. In both cases, the hair would only be good for DNA matching if there were "roots" at the ends of some of the hairs. The hair itself is dead, and it is the root that once contained living tissue, and DNA. Sadly I do not know if either of the hair samples contain hairs with roots attached.
By Cliff Thornton on 4/24/2014 9:23:33 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Just finished reading Blue Lattitudes. I'm a 44 year old Australian raised on Cook history. We'll done on your efforts Cliff. I'm sure there is a remnant hidden away somewhere in a museum, a hole in a cliff, a trunk under a bed or hanging in a village hut. Can you tell me if the loch of hair found in the box was considered as a reliable source for DNA matching?
By Shawn McIntyre on 4/24/2014 4:10:02 AM Like:0 DisLike:0

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