Yosihiko H. Sinoto, D.Sc.

A pioneer of modern archaeology in the Pacific

By Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Yosihiko Sinoto at Bishop Museum (1955) by Photographer unknownBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Dr. Yosihiko (Yosi) Sinoto, an eminent and beloved figure in Pacific archaeology, was employed at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi from the early 1950s until his death in 2017.

Born in Tokyo, Japan in 1924, Yosi had been intrigued by archaeology as a child. However, the upheavals of World War II interrupted serious pursuit of his interest until he was finally able to set sail for California in 1954, bound for the University of California at Berkeley.

Bishop Museum, 1955 (1955) by Photographer unknownBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Aboard the SS President Wilson traveling from Japan to California in 1954, Yosi Sinoto received a telegram advising him to stop off at the Hawaiian Islands to observe an archaeological dig being conducted by Bishop Museum anthropologist Dr. Kenneth Emory. 

As a leading museum of the Pacific, Bishop Museum's reputation for collecting, research, and publishing was well-known. Yosi was compelled to join Dr. Emory at his excavation at Ka Lae, on Hawaiʻi Island.

Dr. Sinoto and Dr. Emory (1960s) by Photographer unknownBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Yosi Sinoto impressed Dr. Emory with his abilities in the field at Ka Lea. Yosi planned to continue on to California, but Dr. Emory convinced him to stay and attend the University of Hawaiʻi instead.

That decision led to a 60 year tenure at Bishop Museum, and a lifetime of dedication to advancing Hawaiian and Pacific archaeology.

Yosihiko Sinoto in the field (1950s) by Photographer unknownBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

In Japan, Yosi Sinoto had been trained to use pottery fragments to establish the relative dates of archaeological sites. 

Pottery, however, had never been made by ancient Hawaiians. It was an accepted belief among archaeologists of the time that Hawaiian culture did not produce artifacts which could be used for comparative dating.

Excavation at Ka Lae, Hawaiʻi Island (1954) by Photographer unknownBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Dr. Emory, who had been trained in his discipline in the 1920s, would both mentor and learn from the emerging archaeologist Sinoto.

Their work together in the early 1950s also coincided with the introduction of carbon dating, a technological innovation that could provide dates through the analysis of organic material, like charcoal left from an ancient fire.

Hawaiian fishhook types by Photographer unknownBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Dr. Sinoto was inspired to use fishhooks as the key cultural artifact to date archaeological sites in Hawaiʻi. Applying what he had learned from fieldwork in Japan, he worked intensively to categorize Hawaiian hooks by their design and their material. 

He eventually broadened this study to include many other Pacific islands, conjecturing on the long-debated subject of human migration throughout the Pacific Ocean over centuries, with fishhooks as evidence.

Dr. Sinoto and Kazuko Sinoto (1970) by Photo by John WrightBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Established in his job at Bishop Museum, Yosi Sinoto was finally able to have his wife Kazuko and their son Akihiko join him in Hawaiʻi in 1957, three years after his departure from Japan.

In the 1970s, Kazuko Sinoto herself emerged as a leader in the Hawaiʻi Immigrant Heritage Preservation Center (HIHPC). Kazuko was instrumental in collecting archival materials from Japanese immigrant and descendant communities in Hawaiʻi.

Their son Aki followed in his father’s footsteps to become an archaeologist.

Excavation on Huahine, Society Islands (1970s) by Photographer unknownBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

A highlight of Dr. Sinoto’s career occurred on the island of Huahine. Construction for a hotel in 1972 turned up important artifacts, leading Yosi to return year after year. 

Five years later, the remains of a thousand-year-old voyaging canoe were uncovered nearby, the first such object ever found. The planks of its hull and its mast evidence the Polynesian migrations of the Pacific, the most monumental sailing accomplishments in human history.

Yosihiko Sinoto at ʻĀfareaitu, Moʻorea (1961) by Photographer unknownBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Dr. Sinoto would come to be recognized in the global scientific community, and respected in indigenous communities who took pride in uncovering knowledge of their ancestors. The work pioneered by Dr. Sinoto continues throughout the Pacific.

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