Ancient Hawaii

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Ancient Hawaii is the period of Hawaiian human history preceding the unification of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi by Kamehameha the Great in 1810. After being first settled by Polynesian long-distance navigators sometime between 300 and 800 CE, a unique culture developed. Diversified agroforestry and aquaculture provided sustenance for Native Hawaiian cuisine. Tropical materials were adopted for housing, and elaborate temples (called heiau) were constructed from the lava rocks available.

A social system with religious leaders and a ruling class organized a substantial population. Captain James Cook made the first known European contact with ancient Hawaiians in 1778. Many people traveled with him to the Hawaiian Islands.

Polynesian Triangle[edit]

Hawaiian history is inextricably tied into a larger Polynesian culture. Hawaiʻi is the Northern apex of the Polynesian Triangle, a region of the Pacific Ocean with three island groups at its corners: the Hawaiʻi islands, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and New Zealand. The many island cultures within the Polynesian Triangle share similar languages derived from a proto-Malayo-Polynesian language used in Southeast Asia 5,000 years ago. Polynesians also share cultural traditions, such as religion, social organization, myths, and material culture. Anthropologists believe that all Polynesians have descended from a South Pacific proto-culture created by an Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) people that had migrated from Southeast Asia.

The Polynesian Triangle is a geographical region of the Pacific Ocean with Hawaiʻi, Rapa Nui and New Zealand at its corners.

The seven other main Polynesian cultures are:

Voyage to the Hawaiian islands[edit]

Main article: Polynesian navigation
Priests traveling across Kealakekua bay for first contact rituals. Each helmet is a gourd, with foliage and tapa strip decoration. A feather surrounded akua is in the arms of the priest at the center of the engraving.

Polynesian seafarers were skilled ocean navigators and astronomers. At a time when Western boats rarely went out of sight of land, Polynesians often traveled long distances.

The early settlement history of Hawaiʻi is still not completely resolved. Some believe that the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaiʻi in the 3rd century from the Marquesas and were followed by Tahitian settlers in 1300 CE who conquered the original inhabitants. Others believe that there was only a single, extended period of settlement. Patrick Kirch, in his 2001 Hawaiki, argues for an extended period of contact but not necessarily for a Tahitian invasion:

There is substantial archaeological as well as paleoecological evidence confirming Hawaiian settlement no later than 800 CE, and quite possibly as early as 300–500 CE (Kirch 1985; Athens 1997). The immediate source of the colonizing population in Hawaiʻi is likely to have been the Southern Marquesas, but continued contact between Hawaiʻi and islands in the core region is indicated by linguistic evidence (lexical borrowings from the Tahitic subgroup), abundant oral traditions (Cachola-Abad 1993), botanical indications, uniquely shared mtDNA sequences in populations of the Pacific Rat (Matisoo-Smith et al. 1998), and possibly some archaeological style changes as well. However, long-distance voyaging between Hawaiʻi and the central Eastern Polynesian core became less frequent after about 1200 CE, and was little more than a memory encoded in Hawaiian oral traditions by the time of European contact.[1]

The only evidence for a Tahitian conquest of the islands are the legends of Hawaiʻiloa and the navigator-priest Paʻao, who is said to have made a voyage between Hawaiʻi and the island of "Kahiki" (Tahiti) and introduced many new customs. Some Hawaiians believe that there was a real historical Paʻao. Early historians, such as Fornander and Beckwith, also subscribed to this Tahitian invasion theory, but later historians, such as Kirch, simply propose that initial settlement came from the Marquesas, with later influence on Hawaiian language and architecture coming from Tahiti, ending before the 1300s.[2]

King Kalakaua, in his book, The Legends and Myths of Hawaii, claims that Paʻao was from Samoa. The religion he brought, the Kahuna religion was from Samoa. Paʻao was instrumental in bringing the High Chief Pili from Samoa to rule the island of Hawaii. Pili is a well-known entity in Samoan mythology. His descendents were one of the highest ranked families in Samoa even to this day. According to the genealogy laid out by King Kalakaua, King Kamehameha was also a descendant of Pili.

Some writers believe that there were other settlers in Hawaiʻi, peoples who were forced back into remote valleys by newer arrivals. They claim that stories about menehune, little people who built heiau and fishponds, prove the existence of ancient peoples who settled the islands before the Hawaiians.[3] Luomala, in her 1951 essay on the menehune, argues that these stories, like stories of "dog people" with tails living in deep forests, are folklore and not to be construed as evidence of an earlier race. Archaeologists have found no evidence suggesting earlier settlements and menehune legends are simply not mentioned or discussed in current archaeological literature.


The colonists brought along with them clothing, plants and livestock and established settlements along the coasts and larger valleys. Upon their arrival, the settlers grew kalo (taro), maiʻa (banana), niu (coconut), ulu (breadfruit), and raised pua'a (pork), moa (chicken), and ʻīlio (poi dog), although these meats were eaten less often than fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Popular condiments included pa'akai (salt), ground kukui nut, limu (seaweed), and ko (sugarcane) which was used as both a sweet and a medicine.[4] In addition to the foods they brought, the settlers also acquired ʻuala (sweet potato), which has yet to be adequately explained, as the plant originates in South America. A few researchers have argued that the presence of the sweet potato in the ancient Hawaiian diet is evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact with the Americas.

The Pacific rat accompanied humans on their journey to Hawaii. David Burney argues that humans, along with the vertebrate animals they brought with them (pigs, dogs, chickens and rats), caused many native species of birds, plants and large land snails to become extinct in the process of colonization.[5]

Estuaries and streams were adapted into fishponds by early Polynesian settlers. Packed earth and cut stone were used to create habitat, making Hawaiians some of, if not the first aquaculturists.[6] Over the course of the last millennium, Hawaiians undertook "large-scale canal-fed pond field irrigation" projects for kalo (taro) cultivation.[7]

As soon as they arrived, the new settlers built hale (homes) and heiau (temples). Archaeologists currently believe that the first settlements were on the southern end of the Big Island of Hawai'i and that they quickly extended northwards, along the seacoasts and the easily accessible river valleys. As the population increased, settlements were made further inland. At this time, with the islands being so small, the population was very dense. Before European contact, the population had reached somewhere in the range of 200,000 to 1,000,000 people. After contact with the Europeans, however, the population steeply dropped due to various diseases including smallpox.[8]


A traditional town of ancient Hawaiʻi included several structures. Listed in order of importance:

Caste system[edit]

18th century Hawaiian helmet and cloak, signs of royalty.

Ancient Hawaiʻi was a caste society. The main classes were:


Hawaiian youth learned life skills and religion at home, often with grandparents. For "bright" children [9] a system of apprenticeship existed in which very young students would begin learning a craft or profession by assisting an expert, or kahuna. As spiritual powers were perceived by Hawaiians to imbue all of nature, experts in many fields of work were known as kahuna, a term commonly understood to mean priest.[10] The various types of kahuna passed on knowledge of their profession, be it in "genealogies, or meles, or herb medicine, or canoe building, or land boundaries,"[11] etc. by involving and instructing apprentices in their work. More formal schools existed for the study of hula, and likely for the study of higher levels of sacred knowledge.

The kahuna took the apprentice into his household as a member of the family, although often "the tutor was a relative".[12] During a religious "graduation" ceremony, "the teacher consecrated the pupil, who thereafter was one with the teacher in psychic relationship as definite and obligatory as blood relationship." [13] Like the children learning from their grandparents, children who were apprentices learned by watching and participating in daily life. Children were discouraged from asking questions in traditional Hawaiian culture.

Land tenure[edit]

In Hawaiian ideology, one does not "own" the land, but merely dwells on it. The Hawaiian mentality is that, the land is immortal (in the sense that it doesn't go away), and gods are immortal, therefore the land must be godly, and since man isn't immortal, man isn't godly, so how can something ungodly control something that is. The Hawaiians thought that all land belonged to the gods (akua).

The aliʻi were believed to be "managers" of land. That is, they controlled those who worked on the land, the makaʻāinana.

On the death of one chief and the accession of another, lands were re-apportioned—some of the previous "manager" would lose their lands, and others would gain them. Lands were also re-apportioned when one chief defeated another, and re-distributed the conquered lands as rewards to his warriors.

In practice, commoners had some security against capricious re-possession of their houses and farms. They were usually left in place, to pay tribute and supply labor to a new chief, under the supervision of a new konohiki, or overseer.

This system of land tenure is similar to the feudal system prevalent in Europe during the Middle Ages.

The ancient Hawaiians had the ahupua'a as their source of water management. Each of the ahupua'as had a sub-division of land from the mountain to the sea. The Hawaiians used the water from the rain that ran through the mountains as a form of irrigation. Hawaiians also settled around these parts of the land because of the farming that was done.[14]

Religion and the Kapu system[edit]

Main article: Kapu

Religion held ancient Hawaiian society together, affecting habits, lifestyles, work methods, social policy and law. The legal system was based on religious kapu, or taboos. There was a correct way to live, to worship, and even to eat. Examples of kapu included the provision that men and women could not eat together ('Aikapu religion). Fishing was limited to specified seasons of the year. The shadow of the aliʻi must not be touched as it was stealing his mana.

The rigidity of the kapu system came from a second wave of migrations in 1000–1300 CE. Different religions and systems were shared between Hawaii and the Society Islands. Hawaii was influenced by the Tahitian chiefs and the kapu system became stricter and the social structure changed. Human sacrifice was a part of their new religious observance. And the ali'i gained more power over the counsel of experts on the islands.[15]

Kapu was derived from traditions and beliefs from Hawaiian worship of gods, demigods and ancestral mana. The forces of nature were personified as the main gods of (God of War), Kāne (God of Light and Life), Kanaloa (God of Death), and Lono (God of peace). Famous lesser gods include Pele (Goddess of Fire) and her sister Hiʻiaka (Goddess of Water). In a famous creation story, the demigod Māui fished the islands of Hawaiʻi from the sea after a little mistake he made on a fishing trip. From Haleakalā, Māui ensnared the sun in another story, forcing him to slow down so there was equal periods of darkness and light each day.

The Hawaiian mystical worldview allows for different gods and spirits to imbue any aspect of the natural world.[16] From this mystical perspective, in addition to his presence in lightening and rainbows, the God of Light and Life, Kāne, can be present in rain and clouds and a peaceful breeze (typically the "home" of Lono).

Although all food and drink had religious significance to the ancient Hawaiians, due to its narcotic properties special cultural emphasis was placed on 'awa (kava). This root-based beverage, a psychoactive and a relaxant, was used to consecrate meals and commemorate ceremonies. It is often referred to in Hawaiian chant.[17] Different varieties of the root were used by different castes, and the brew served as an "introduction to mysticism".[18]


The four biggest islands, Hawaiʻi island, Maui, Kauaʻi and Oʻahu were generally ruled by their own Aliʻi ʻaimoku, high chiefs (also called king, local king). Under them, subordinate district aliʻi controlled their petty fiefs.

All these dynasties were interrelated. They all regarded native Hawaiian people (and possibly all humans) as descendants of legendary parents, Wākea (symbolizing the air) and his wife Papa (symbolizing the earth). During the late eighteenth century, the kingdom of the island of Hawaiʻi fragmented into several independent chiefdoms. Internecine warfare between them became common. There apparently was no longer an aliʻi ʻaimoku controlling the island.

In the beginning of nineteenth century, high chiefs of major islands were considered the "twenty-and-something" aliʻi ʻaimoku to hold their positions, according to count of monarchs in each realm based on Hawaiian legends. Assuming five to ten generations per century, the Aliʻi ʻAimoku dynasties were around three to six centuries old at 1800 CE. The Tahitian invasion of the Hawaiian islands, reportedly extinguishing all the previous population, is believed to have taken place in the thirteenth century. Aliʻi ʻAimoku lordships were presumably established rather soon after the invasion.

The preceding generations, according to lineal counts in legends, some 30 generations from mythical Wakea to the first Aliʻi ʻAimoku rulers, thus presumably lived elsewhere than in Hawaiian islands.

Subsistence economy[edit]

The ancient Hawaiian economy became complex over time. People began to specialize in specific skills. Generations of families became committed to certain careers: roof thatchers, house builders, stone grinders, bird catchers who would make the feather cloaks of the aliʻi, canoe builders. Soon, entire islands began to specialize in certain skilled trades. Oʻahu became the chief kapa (tapa bark cloth) manufacturer. Maui became the chief canoe manufacturer. The island of Hawaiʻi exchanged bales of dried fish.

First recorded contact[edit]

European contact with the Hawaiian islands marked the beginning of the end of the ancient Hawaiʻi period. In 1778, British Captain James Cook landed first on Kauaʻi, then sailed southwards to observe and explore the other islands in the chain.

When he first arrived at Kealakekua Bay in 1779, some of the natives believed Cook was their god Lono. Cook's mast and sails coincidentally resembled the emblem (a mast and sheet of white tapa) that symbolized Lono in their religious rituals; the ships arrived during the Makahiki season dedicated to Lono.

Captain Cook was eventually killed during a violent confrontation and left behind on the beach by his retreating sailors. The British demanded that his body be returned, but the Hawaiians had already performed funerary rituals of their tradition.[19]

Within a few decades Kamehameha I used European warfare tactics and some firearms and cannon to unite the islands into the Kingdom of Hawaii.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kirch 2001, p. 80
  2. ^ Kirch, Hawaiki, Ancestral Polynesia. pp. 80
  3. ^ The best survey of these stories, all collected in the latter part of the 19th century, is found in Beckwith's Hawaiian mythology, pp. 321–336.
  4. ^ Adams, 2006, pp. 90–92
  5. ^ Burney, Back to the Future in the Caves of Kaua'i. pp. 83
  6. ^ Burney, Back to the Future in the Caves of Kaua'i. pp.60-62
  7. ^ Kirch, Hawaiki, Ancestral Polynesia. pp. 130-131
  8. ^ Dye, Tom. "Population Trends in Hawai'i Before 1778." The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 28
  9. ^ Handy and Pukui, The Polynesian Family System in Ka-'U, Hawai'i pp. 90
  10. ^ Dudley, M. K. Man, Gods, and Nature. pp. 95
  11. ^ Handy, E. S. C. Ancient Hawaiian Civilization pp. 55-57
  12. ^ Handy and Pukui, The Polynesian Family System in Ka-'U, Hawai'i pp. 90
  13. ^ Handy and Pukui, The Polynesian Family System in Ka-'U, Hawai'i pp. 90
  14. ^ Rosenfeld, Alan. "Ancient Polynesia." 19 Nov. 2013. p.13. Lecture.
  15. ^ Polynesian Migrations. Hawaii History. 14 November 2010. <>
  16. ^ Dudley, Man, Gods, and Nature. pp. 77
  17. ^ Handy, Ancient Hawaiian Civilization. pp. 63
  18. ^ Dudley, Man, Gods, and Nature. pp. 77
  19. ^ Kamakau 1961, pp. 103–104


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Secondary sources[edit]

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