Ancient Hawaii

Ancient Hawaii
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Ancient Hawaii refers to 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 AD 300–800, a unique culture developed. Diversified agroforestry and aquaculture provided sustenance. 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

Hawaiian history is inextricably tied into a larger Polynesian phenomenon. 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 Aotearoa (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

Priests traveling across kealakekua bay for first contact rituals.jpg

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 AD 1300 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 AD, and quite possibly as early as AD 300–500 (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 AD 1200, 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 do not mention it.

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.[2] 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 ilio (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.[3] In addition to the foods they brought, the settlers also acquired 'uala (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.

At this time, with the islands being so small, the population was very dense. In fact, before Europoean contact, the population ranged from 200,000 to 1,000,000 people. After contact with the Europeans, however, the population steeply dropped because of disease (small pox).[4] 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.


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

  • Heiau, temple to the gods. They were built on high-rising stone terraces and adorned with wood and stone carved idols. A source of great mana or divine power, the heiau was restricted to aliʻi, the king and kahuna, or priests.
  • Hale aliʻi, the house of the chief. It was used as a residence for the high chief and meeting house of the lesser chiefs. It was always built on a raised stone foundation to represent high social standing. Kahili, or feather standards, were placed outside to signify royalty. Women and children were banned from entering.
  • Hale pahu, the house of the sacred hula instruments. It held the pahu drums. It was treated as a religious space as hula was a religious activity in honor of the goddess Laka.
  • Hale papaʻa, the house of royal storage. It was built to store royal implements including fabrics, prized nets and lines, clubs, spears and other weapons.
  • Hale ulana, the house of the weaver. It was the house where craftswomen would gather each day to manufacture the village baskets, fans, mats and other implements from dried pandanus leaves called lauhala.
  • Hale mua, the men's eating house. It was considered a sacred place because it was used to carve stone idols of ʻaumakua or ancestral gods. Men and women could not eat with each other for fear that men were vulnerable while eating to have their mana, or divine spirit, stolen by women. Women ate at their own separate eating house called the hale ʻaina. The design was meant for the men to be able to enter and exit quickly.
  • Hale waʻa, the house of the canoe. It was built along the beaches as a shelter for their fishing vessels. Hawaiians also stored koa logs used to craft the canoes.
  • Hale lawaiʻa, the house of fishing. It was built along the beaches as a shelter for their fishing nets and lines. Nets and lines were made by a tough rope fashioned from woven coconut husks. Fish hooks were made of human, pig or dog bone. Implements found in the hale lawaiʻa were some of the most prized possessions of the entire village.
  • Hale noho, the living house. It was built as sleeping and living quarters for the Hawaiian family unit.
  • Imu, the communal earth oven. Dug in the ground, it was used to cook the entire village's food including puaʻa or pork. Only men cooked using the imu.

Caste system

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

Ancient Hawaiʻi was a caste society much like Hindus in India. People were born into specific social classes; social mobility was not unknown, but it was extremely rare. The main classes were:

  • Aliʻi. This class consisted of the high and lesser chiefs of the realms. They governed with divine power called mana. Could be equated with Kshatriyas in India who had the same role in the society.
  • Kahuna. Priests conducted religious ceremonies, at the heiau and elsewhere. Professionals included master carpenters and boatbuilders, chanters, dancers, genealogists, physicians and healers. Much like Brahmins in Hindu society.
  • Makaʻāinana. Commoners farmed, fished, and exercised the simpler crafts. They labored not only for themselves and their families, but to support the chiefs and kahuna. Much like Vaishyas in Hinduism.
  • Kauā. They are believed to have been war captives, or the descendants of war captives. Marriage between higher castes and the kauwa was strictly forbidden. The kauwa worked for the chiefs and were often used as human sacrifices at the luakini heiau. (They were not the only sacrifices; law-breakers of all castes or defeated political opponents were also acceptable as victims.). Much like shudras in Hinduism.

Land tenure

The great chiefs owned all the land in the areas which they controlled. They allocated control of portions of the land to their kinsmen and retainers, who then apportioned land to the commoners.

On the death of one chief and the accession of another, lands were re-apportioned—some of the previous "owners" 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 main landholding unit in Hawai'i was the ahupua'a, a triangular slice of land running from the mountains in the center of an island down to the seashore. An island would be cut like a pie into a number of ahupua'a, usually defined by river valleys. Most ahupua'a contained all the resources necessary for life: a seashore for fishing and perhaps gathering on the reef, a river for drinking, bathing, and irrigation, forested uplands for timber and wild foods. All inhabitants of the ahupua'a shared the right to fish in the commonly-held waters, or gather in the uplands. Outsiders could fish or gather only with the permission of the residents. Some ahupua'a were larger than others and were sub-divided into smaller units. Some were incomplete. A fishing village on a rocky shore might form an ahupua'a rich in fish and lacking in everything else. These villagers had to barter fish for taro and sweet potato. Most villages were built close to the shore, for easy access to fishing grounds. A system of Hawaiian aquaculture was developed to increase the fish harvest. However, as the Hawaiian population increased over the centuries, inland villages sprang up as well. Like the fishing villages, they had to barter for the foods they could not get for themselves. Every ahupua'a owed taxes, in the form of produce, crafts, and labor, to the chiefs who had responsibility for the land. These demands could be onerous. Ancient Hawaiian tales speak of the chiefs as ravenous land sharks, who devoured the work of the commoners.

Kapu system

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. Common women faced death for eating bananas, coconuts, and other specific foods. The shadow of the aliʻi must not be touched as it was stealing his mana. Violating kapu even by accident was punishable by death. The aliʻi convinced the common people that they had inherited divine power (mana) and were completely chosen by the gods to rule. The aliʻi could take whoever committed any of these so called "sins" and use them for human sacrifices and sometimes bait for shark hunting. There were also ovens located at Punchbowl and Waikiki that were used for burning human bodies who broke a kapu. Commoners were drowned at Kewalo Basin for breaking the kapus. Human heads, of those offered in sacrifice, were put on stakes that lined the Pakaka temple at the foot of Fort Street (Downtown Honolulu). At the heiau located at the foot of Diamond Head, men had their limbs broken with clubs, their eyes scooped out, and then were left bleeding and maimed for three days. Then they were later clubbed to death with blows to the shoulders rather than to the head, this prolonged the suffering before death.[5]

The rigidity of the kapu system came from a second wave of migrations in 1000-1300 AD. 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.[6]

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), 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 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). Their legend is similar to other creation myths, such as Adam and Eve.

During the late 18th 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 19th 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. One century averagely contains three to five biological generations. Even allowing for successions of siblings and such, any experiential dynastic research generally allows less than ten successive monarchs in one century on average. Concluded from this, the Aliʻi ʻAimoku dynasties were then (around 1800 CE) three to six centuries old. The Tahitian invasion of the Hawaiian islands, reportedly extinguishing all the previous population, is believed to have taken place in the 13th 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

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

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, 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.[7]

Within a few years Kamehameha I used European warfare tactics to unite the islands into the Kingdom of Hawaii.

See also


  1. ^ Kirch 2001, p. 80
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Adams, 2006, p.90-92
  4. ^ "Hawaii History: Post-Contact." Alternative Hawaii. 2002. Web. 08 Dec. 2010. <>.
  5. ^ The Kapu Systems. Retrieved November 14, 2010.
  6. ^ Polynesian Migrations. Hawaii History. 14 November 2010. <>
  7. ^ Kamakau 1961, pp. 103-104


Primary sources

  • Kamakau, Samuel Manaiakalani (April 1992). Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii (Revised ed.). The Kamehameha Schools Press. ISBN 0-87336-015-X. 

Secondary sources

External links

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