Ancient Hawai i refers to
the period of Hawaiian human
history preceding the unification of the Kingdom of Hawai i by Kamehameha the Great in 1810.
After being first settled by Polynesian long-distance navigators
sometime between AD.300-800, a unique culture developed.
provided sustenance. Tropical
materials were adopted for housing, and elaborate temples (called
) 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
contact with Europeans in 1778.
Hawaiian history is inextricably tied into a larger Polynesian
phenomenon. Hawai i is the
Northern apex of the Polynesian
Triangle, a region of the Pacific Ocean anchored by three island groups: the Hawai i 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
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
The Polynesian Triangle is a
geographical region of the Pacific Ocean anchored by Hawai i, Rapa
Nui and New Zealand.
The seven other main Polynesian cultures are:
Voyage to the Hawaiian islands
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
The early settlement history of Hawai i is still not completely
resolved. Some believe that the first Polynesians
arrived in Hawai i in the 3rd century from the Marquesas and were followed by Tahitian settlers in
AD 1300 who conquered the original inhabitants.
believe that there was only a single, extended period of
settlement. Patrick Kirch
, in his 2001
, 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 Hawai'i is
likely to have been the Southern Marquesas, but continued contact
between Hawai'i 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 Hawai'i 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
The only evidence for a Tahitian conquest of the islands are the
legends of Hawai iloa
navigator-priest Pa ao
, who is said to have
made a voyage between Hawai i and the island of "Kahiki" (Tahiti)
and introduced many new customs. Some Hawaiians believe that there
was a real historical Pa'ao
. Early historians,
such as Fornander and Beckwith, also subscribed to this Tahitian
invasion theory, but later historians, such as Kirch, simply do not
, 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. Paao
was instrumental in bringing the High Chief Pili
from Samoa to rule the island of Hawaii.
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. The
big island of Savaii in the Samoan archipelago was known as Hawaiki
in ancient times.
Some writers believe that there were other settlers in Hawai i,
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.
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), mai a
(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. 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
with the Americas.
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 Hawai i 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 ali i, the king and kahuna, or
- Hale ali i, 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
- 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
- Hale papa a, 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 aumakua 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 aina. The
design was meant for the men to be able to enter and exit
- Hale wa a, 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 lawai a, 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 lawai
a were some of the most prized possessions of the entire
- 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
pua a or pork. Only men cooked using the
Ancient Hawai i was a caste society
in India. People were born into
specific social classes; social
was not unknown, but it was extremely rare. The main
- Ali i. 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.
- Maka āinana.
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
- 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.
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
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
The main landholding unit in Hawai'i was the ahupua'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.
held ancient Hawaiian society
together, affecting habits, lifestyles, work methods, social policy
and law. The legal system was based on religious kapu
. There was a correct way to live, to
worship, and even to eat. Examples of kapu
provision that men and women could not eat together. Fishing was
limited to specified seasons of the year. The shadow of the ali
must not be touched as it was stealing his mana
Violating kapu even by accident was punishable by death.
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 Kū
(God of War), Kāne
(God of Light and Life), and Lono
(God of peace). Famous lesser gods include
(Goddess of Fire) and her
sister Hi iaka
(Goddess of Water). In a
famous creation story, the demigod Māui
fished the islands of
Hawai i 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
The four biggest islands, Hawai i island, Maui, Kaua i and O ahu
were generally ruled by their own Ali i ʻaimoku, high chiefs (also
called king, local king). Under them, subordinate district ali i
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
air) and his wife Papa (symbolizing the earth). Their legend is
similar to other creation myths, such as Adam and Eve.
the late 18th century, the kingdom of the island of
Hawai i fragmented into several independent
Internecine warfare between them became common.
There apparently was no longer an ali i ʻaimoku controlling the
In the beginning of 19th century, high chiefs of major islands were
considered the "twenty-and-something" ali i 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 Ali i 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. Ali i ʻAimoku
lordships were presumably established rather soon after the
The preceding generations, according to lineal counts in legends,
some 30 generations from mythical Wakea to the first Ali i ʻAimoku
rulers, thus presumably lived elsewhere than in Hawaiian
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
, canoe builders. Soon, entire islands began to
specialize in certain skilled trades. O ahu became the
chief kapa (tapa bark cloth) manufacturer.
Maui became the
chief canoe manufacturer. The island of Hawai i exchanged bales of dried fish.
First recorded contact
European contact with the Hawaiian islands marked the beginning of
the end of the ancient Hawai i period. In 1778, British
Captain James Cook landed first on
Kaua i, then sailed southwards to observe and explore the
other islands in the chain.
first arrived at Kealakekua Bay, some of the natives believed Cook was their god
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
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.
Within a few years Kamehameha I
European warfare tactics to unite the islands into the Kingdom of Hawaii
- Kirch 2001, p. 80
- 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.
- Adams, 2006, p.90-92
- Kamakau 1961, pp. 103-104