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Ancient Hawaii

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In the beginning there was the mighty dark ocean, coursing unattended around a globe. Then a rupture occurred in the basalt bed of the ocean to begin birthing an island’s forty million year journey to the surface. “For the first ten thousand years after its tentative emergence, the little pile of rock in the dead vast center of the sea fluctuated between life and death.”(Mitchner 784). Birds stopped in, untold life forms from the sea and their accompanying cargo were the initial populace of this new land form. In the course of the millions of years after surfacing, the elements conspired to sculpt this island. That which survived, adapted, made itself anew to survive in a new world, awaited man. Being composed entirely of lava, these islands were devoid of metals and workable clays, the raw material used to build civilizations elsewhere (Ward 465).

So far scientists have been able to discover that there was an old and very early stream which came to all the islands of the Pacific and into Hawaii. It appears to have been closely related to the northern European type (Handy, et al. 15). It was a tall long-headed type with reddish tinged hair and skin. The oldest Polynesian type probably came down from central Asia, down through the islands east of China into Polynesia. A second type, which seems to be Mongolian, entered Hawaii later. This type is closely related to the Southern Chinese or Malay
type (Handy, et al. 16). A third type which seems to have come even later is hard to describe. It seems to be European or Alpine, which is also found in various parts of Asia. The early residents of Ancient Hawaii, therefore, are thought to be descended from two European types and one Asiatic type. There was also in old Polynesia, a dash of Negroid blood acquired probably in the passing through of the islanders of the western Pacific which are inhabited by the Negroid race. The first settlers in Hawaii arrived probably around 500 CE by what archaeologist think were the Marquesas. Traditional narratives trace the movement of the Polynesians into an earlier and later period. The earlier people were the pioneers who reached various islands and settled down without much thought of returning to their departure point. Proto-Polynesian is the name given to these newcomers. They were a people not yet, but becoming, Polynesian. Although they shared a culture, they may have lived in many groups, some exploring northward into the area of small islands now know a Micronesia and contributing to the ancestry of Micronesians; others acquiring Melanesian genes during periods of settlement along the northern coast of New Guinea or in the many islands of Melanesia (Gibbons 32). The trail of Lapita pottery leads eastward to Fiji, apparently settled by a people of mixed Proto-Polynesian and Melanesian ancestry (Gibbons 32).

These stone-age settlers of Hawaii were known as the Menehune. Their main voyages extended from the end of the eleventh century and then ceased (Handy, et al. 27). The Menehune are believed to have originally come from Southeast Asia, eastward to the Philippines and on through the low, far-flung islands of Micronesia. Finding few native food plants and no animals on the Hawaiian Island, they lived along the coast, constructed many large stone fish ponds and depended largely on seafood, berries ,roots and the fruit of the pandanus. The term Menehune became synonomous with disparaging, belittling, meaning a people of small statue. But when Western writers heard stories of Menehune, they thought their informants were speaking of a people of small size. They became known in Hawaiian folklore as the little people. There is no authentic Hawaiian tradition of the Menehune as a race of physically small people. On Kaua’i there is solid evidence of this earlier people: the rock work called the “Menehune ditch” – an ancient aqueduct that once brought water from a river to irrigated land for growing taro. There are other rock constructions attributed to them. A retreat by Menehune groups along the island chain would explain why the island of Kaua’i was their last hold out. Other rock formations attributed to them trace their further retreat in various areas of the South Pacific islands.

In recent years, Thor Heyerdahl has put forward the view that the Polynesians came to their islands from the Americas. He places emphasis on the prevailing winds and currents from the east, but also uses evidence from blood groups, botanical and cultural affinities, the capacities of Inca rafts and Peruvian legends of the disappearance of the chief Kon-Tiki into the Pacific (Sharp 122). The plants he connects to these two cultures are the reed, sweet potato and chili peppers. This theory has all but been discredited but for the possibility of perhaps an all accidental visit of ship lost persons possibly from the Americas.

In the early part of the twelth century a large influx of new settlers arrived from Tahiti. These were accomplished seamen and navigators, who journeyed between their new and old home (Kahik in the old language) for another two hundred years before breaking off ties and developing their own rich culture. This second group, a proud, freeborn branch of the Caucasian race, brought their own food plants, animals, flowers and the paper mulberry tree. They subjugated and absorbed the Menehune people. The main islands were divided among their great chiefs and navigators – such men as Hika-po-loa, who remained in Hawaii, Hua and Kalana’nu who settled on Maui; Newa-lani and Maweke who chose Oahu; and Pun-nui who took his people to Kauai (Borden 67). These people from Tahiti were of the Arii-the noblest of Polynseians and they became known as Hawaiians. The early Hawaiians were a handsome, vigorous, well-formed people. Their chiefs were frequently seven feet tall, weighed from three hundred to four hundred pounds and were as accomplished in physical prowess as the best athletes of ancient Greece. They were expert fishermen and craftsmen, and clever warriors. For centuries they were divided into a number of independent kingdoms that were frequently at war with each other, but their wars were relatively mild affairs compared with the “civilized” European warfare and religious cruelties of that time. They may have been driven by population pressure, a famine caused by a period of drought, or a lost battle. They may have been led by an ambitious chief, perhaps one whose older brothers had left him with few expectations at home. Many of the long voyages that were made during this era were celebrated and handed down through songs and geneaologies. Together they form a record of skill and seamanship unexcelled by any people.

Polynesians were navigators capable of guiding relatively simple canoes over great distances. They were experts trained to acute powers of observations and memory, Polynesian navigators were also priests responsible for conducting the rituals of their profession and invoking spiritual help. Modern navigators are equipped to fix his position without reference to his place of departure, the Polynesian used a system that was home-oriented. He kept a mental record of all courses steered and all phenomena affecting the movement of the canoe, tracing these backwards in his mind so that at any time he could point in the approximate direction of his home island and estimate the sailing time required to reach it - a complex feat of dead
reckoning (Sharp 75). This required careful attention. It also meant insufficient sleep. It’s been said that the navigator could always be distinguished among his companions on a canoe by his bloodshot eyes. After an area/island was settled or became a point from which travel originated, stars would be acknowledged as guides for travel. Even if these were obscured the ancient Polynesians were able to guide their oceanic travels by currents and swells in the ocean. After travel was opened from the Tahitian leeward islands the high priest Pa’oa came to Hawaii. He determined that the chiefs, by intermarriage with the lower classes, had lost the purity of lineage necessary to receive chiefly manna (life force, awe) from the patron spirits. By his standards none were qualified to rule. Back he sailed to his homeland, where he recruited Pili, a prince of the purest lineage. Returning to Hawaii, probably with a strong force, Pa’ao installed Pili as king and Pili founded the dynasty from which Kamehameha descended 28 generations later (Bellwood 97).

Hawaiians love to pray. Their prayers were through song, chant, and hula(dance).Every event of the day was prayed over as their deities were seen everywhere. There were four main gods: Ku, Kane, Lono and Kanaloa. They worshipped their gods and goddesses (akua), as well as their ancestors (“aumakua) (Oliver, 1989, 113). People worshipped aspects of the deity that pertained to the activity in which they engaged. It has been theorized that all the akua were once human beings who lived on earth, and were deified once they died. This would help explain why there is little separation between their ancestor worship and that of religious deities. The most famous of the goddesses is Pele, connected to “fire” in this case volcanoes. Religion was almost an art form to the Hawaiians. It ruled their lives in the form of kapus (taboos). Even those kapus that don’t seem to be connected to spirituality are related to a deity or mana (spiritual power/life force)(Chickering 13). The breaking of a kapu usually involved being put to death. A chief could pardon a kapu-breaker or the person could run to a pu’uhonua (temple of refuge) for purification (Oliver, 87).

Hawaiians categorized people on the basis of birth into only three major classes: alii,
maka’anana (people that attend the land or commoner) and Kauwa (untouchable, outcast)[Handy et al. 1957]. The alii were in ten levels and varied in the level of reverence with which they were treated. To preserve the “holiness” in a family marriage between brother, sisters, mother and fathers was often allowed. The kapu system and the old way of Hawaiian life was abolished in 1819 when Kamehameha I’s favorite wife became a Christian and Kamehameha II publically sat with women and ate, breaking one of the oldest kapu’s [Handy 98].

In old Hawaii kings awarded custody of lands to their loyal supporters. Island kingdoms (mokupuni) were divided into districts (moku) which were further parceled into minor chiefdoms (ahupua’a) [Bellwood 101]. Authority in Polynesia was based on seniority (inherited mana) and acquired mana made evident by personal talents and accomplishments Polynesians placed the clan’s interest over self interest. Problem behavior was handled by shunning or banishment and since this hit at the very essence of survival, it was all the discipline required.


Leading experts, kahuna, were the cultural counterparts of the guildmasters and priests of
MediaevalEurope. The kahuna nui advised his king on spiritual matters and conducted rituals to
invoke spiritual help. Kahuna pule performed invocations for assistance from major spirits. Kahuna kilo hoku were experts in weather/astronomy/navigation, Kahuna ho’oulu’ai were agricultural experts. There were kahunas of expert carving, canoe building, medical, and
prophets. The powers of the Kahuna also ended in 1819 when the kingdom of Hawii abandoned
its ancient religion. Polynesians saw Europeans not as superior beings, but as another people
who apparently had been blessed with materials and technology as beneficiaries of a god more powerful than their own akua. Learning was done at home or the kahuna. Learning at the childhood stage was done by imitating. Later guidance was given over to the expert who instructed the child until he knew the trade. The occupations were a matter of heredity.

Without writing, kahuna were the living libraries of the old culture, preserving knowledge in trained memories. Some feats of memory seem incredible today, specifically the story of Kamapua’a required sixteen hours of word-perfect recitations. Knowledge kept in living memories and shared only among a select few is extremely fragile, which helps explain why so much as been lost. Only one epidemic of an introduced disease could wipe out the masters of a guild and with them the knowledge accumulated over millennia. The disenfranchisement of the Kahuna led to the loss of much of the knowledge of the Hawaiian culture.

The calendar of the ancient Hawaiians was based on the rising of the Pleiades ,and
the beginning of the year was when the Pleiades appeared in the eastern sky, corresponding to
our modern month of November. The months were based on the moon’s cycle , each month
having either 29 or 30 days with a interlay month of about 11 days. Special celebrations
lasted months, possibly relating to seasonal occurrences which were attributed to deities.

The ancient Hawaiians lived in a land where there was not a great need for
extreme measures in taking care of themselves. They used a type of cloth called kappa, made
from the inner bark of the mulberry plant, for clothing, sails mats. Fish and poi were the main
foods. They also had pigs, chickens, banana, yams, coconut, breadfruit and sugar cane. The
fibrous stalks of the sugar can were also used for cleaning teeth. Since there was no clay or other
suitable material for cooking pots, all the cooking was done in the ground in pit ovens called
imus. Enough food was cooked at one time to last for several days. Men pounded the taro root
for poi, fished, built houses, and cultivated sweet potatoes and taro patches. Women made
clothing from the inner bark of the mulberry and wove lauhala mats, pillows, baskets and
sails. Young boys were taught the fine art of canoe building. Others became skilled in the use of
medicinal herbs. Some became historical orators and were specially trained to memorize and
recite long traditional songs and chants. Ancient Hawaiians enjoyed sports. They like dancing,
boxing foot races and a form of checkers. Swimming and surfing were naturally popular. Shark
killing was also a sport of the Hawaiians (Adams, 29).

History has described Polynesians as a generally happy people with good humor, a desire to please and a willingness to be amused. The Tahitians were know as the most poetic and


gentle; the Maori were the most formidable warriors, the Hawaiians known to be the most religious and romantic. No matter where one meets them, a person can’t help liking the native Hawaiians.


Works Cited

Adams, Ben. Hawaii The Aloha State .New York:
Hill and Wang Inc., 1959.
Bellwood, Peter. The Polynesians. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1978.

Borden, Charles A. Hawaii…Fiftieth State. Philadelphia ,Pa.: Macrae Smith Company, 1960.

Chickering, Wm.H. Within the Sound of These Waves. New York:
Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1941.

Gibbons, Ann. “Genes Point to a New Identity.” Science. 1 July’94: vol. 263, is 5143:32-33.

Handy, E.S. Craighill, Emory, Kenneth P., Bryan, Edwin H., Buck, Peter H., Wise, John H.
Ancient Hawaiian Civilization. Vermont: Charles E Tuttle Co. 1965.

Mitchner, James A. Alaska, Hawaii . New Jersey: Wings Books, 1995.

Oliver, Douglas L. Native Culture of the Polynesian Islands . Honolulu, Hawaii:
University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

Sharp, Andrew. Ancient Voyagers in Polynesia. Los Angeles, University of California Press,

Ward, Greg. Hawaii. London: The Rough Guides, 1996.



Max Vandiver
History 111-01 World Civilization
Russ Foster
Blue Ridge Community College
November 7, 2001


wow, very well written and well informed. Its this your research paper? I'm gonna have to check out some of your refrences too. I love ancient hawa'i history, tales, and mythology, No matter how many time I read something I still learn something new or that there's just so much info I forget somethings.

Atomic Cocktail's superb Hawaiian history website http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online-books/kona/history.htm revealed the following on Tiki history:

Prior to the high priest Pa'ao's arrival, the Hawaiians worshipped unseen deities. The introduction of wooden temple images as representations of the cosmic gods provided the people with something tangible through which to worship their deities. These images were not worshipped as gods themselves, but it was thought that when invoked through certain rituals, the mana or spirit of a god would occupy the carved statue and could be consulted or supplicated in times of need. Visitors to the islands long after the abolition of the ancient religious system noted that the Hawaiians

deny that they actually worshipped the wood and the stone, and to explain to us their use of images, they refer at once to the practice of the Romanists in regard to pictures and symbols. They can discern but little difference between their ancient worship and the rites and ceremonies of the Romanists. . . . [190]

Hawaiian temple courtyard images were only one means by which priests communicated with the gods. In other instances they received messages while in the oracle tower or while in a trance. It is also thought that in some cases the paramount chief, as a direct descendant of the gods, served as the interlocutor between the deities and their worshippers during the course of a ceremony. [191]

(2) Appearance

Priest-craftsmen, highly trained and skilled in the intricacies of both the carving of wood and the symbolism of religious ritual, served as the artisans of these powerful images. Standing within the temple courtyards or stationed around the walls of heiau, these sculptures inspired fear among the populace and vividly impressed visiting Europeans (Illustration 16). In 1823 the Reverend William Ellis

took a sketch of one of the idols [on the ruins of the heiau Ahuena at Kailua], which stood sixteen feet above the wall, was upwards of three feet in breadth, and had been carved out of a single tree. The above may be considered as a tolerable specimen of the greater part of Hawaiian idols. The head has generally a most horrid appearance, the mouth being large and usually extended wide, exhibiting a row of large teeth, resembling in no small degree the cogs in the wheel of an engine, and adapted to excite terror rather than inspire confidence in the beholder. Some of their idols were of stone, and many were constructed with a kind of wickerwork covered with red feathers. . .

(There's more on the website)

[ Edited by: christiki295 on 2004-05-25 19:21 ]

k'eli posted on Wed, May 26, 2004 6:18 PM

You both have done your homework in a most precise manner. Being from the islands this information is in our upbringing - but always interesting to see what the "mainlanders" write.

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