updated 1/2/2007 9:44:34 PM ET 2007-01-03T02:44:34

A man hunting for American Indian artifacts with his sons along a gravel bar on the Missouri River has uncovered an ancient fishhook that is making collectors envious.

"The first thing I thought is, 'I hope this isn't metal,'" said Eric Henley, who found the hook last month near McBaine. "When I picked it up, there was a pretty good jump for joy and a couple of 'whoops' and yells. It's the cream of the crop."

The hook is made of bone and covers his entire palm, making it much larger than most bone hooks.

Joe Harl, of the Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis, said the size of the hook suggests the fisherman who used it was after a larger fish.

Another artifact collector, Kenny Bassett, said the large size of the hook might indicate an earlier origin. American Indians used bigger rocks and tools in earlier periods to hunt larger game such as wooly mammoths. He said the hook could have been used to fish for pallid sturgeon or enormous catfish.

Bassett, who works with Henley, said he had to control his envy when he saw the oversized hook.

"I've been hunting" American Indian artifacts "for 30 years and never found anything so identifiably unique. I've never seen anything like it," Bassett said.

Because bone matter deteriorates rapidly, bone artifacts typically have to be buried deep enough in the ground to be preserved. And they are usually found during archaeological digs, said Bill Iseminger, assistant site manager at Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site in Illinois.

Harl said sandier soil in spots along the river might have kept the hook preserved. He said the hook could be anywhere from 300 to 12,000 years old.

Henley, a maintenance man at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has no plans to learn the hook's exact age. Carbon dating the item would require drilling through the fragile bone, and he doesn't want to risk ruining the hook.

Henley credits his sons, 11 and 6, for being good-luck charms because he made the discovery on the first trip the boys had joined their dad for an artifact hunt.

"Now every time I go, they're going to be there."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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