Ancient Hawaiʻi is the period of Hawaiian human history preceding the
unification in 1810 of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi by Kamehameha the
Great. Researchers had based their estimates of first settlement by
Polynesian long-distance navigators from French Polynesia, Tahiti, the
Tuamotus and the Samoan Islands sporadically between 300 and 800. In
2010, a study was published based on radiocarbon dating of more
reliable samples and it suggests that the islands were settled much
later, within a short timeframe, in c. 1219 – 1266.
The islands in Eastern Polynesia have been characterized by the
continuities among their cultures, and the short migration period
would be an explanation of this result. Diversified agroforestry and
aquaculture provided sustenance for Native Hawaiian cuisine. Tropical
materials were adopted for housing. Elaborate temples (called heiau)
were constructed from the lava rocks available.
The rich natural resources supported a relatively dense population,
organized by a ruling class and social system with religious leaders.
James Cook made the first known European contact with ancient
Hawaiians in 1778. He was followed by many other Europeans and
1 Voyage to the Hawaiian islands
6 Land tenure
7 Religion and the
9 Subsistence economy
10 First recorded European contact
11 See also
13.1 Primary sources
13.2 Secondary sources
14 External links
Voyage to the Hawaiian islands
Main article: Polynesian navigation
See also: Discovery and settlement of Hawaii
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
There have been changing views about initial Polynesian discovery and
settlement of Hawai'i.
Radiocarbon dating in Hawai'i initially
indicated a possible settlement as early as 124. Patrick Vinton
Kirch's books on Hawaiian archeology, standard textbooks, date the
first Polynesian settlements to about 300 with more recent suggestions
by Kirch as late as 600. Other theories suggest dating as late as 700
In 2010 researchers announced new findings using revised,
high-precision radiocarbon dating based on more reliable samples than
were previously used in many dating studies. This new data
indicates that the period of eastern and northern Polynesian
colonization took place much later, in a shorter time frame of two
waves: the "earliest in the Society Islands c. 1025 – 1120, four
centuries later than previously assumed; then after 70–265 y,
dispersal continued in one major pulse to all remaining islands c.
1190 – 1290." According to this research, settlement of the
Hawaiian Islands took place circa 1219–1266. This rapid
colonization is believed to account for the "remarkable uniformity of
East Polynesia culture, biology and language."
According to Hawaiian mythology, 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.
The colonists brought along with them clothing, plants (called "canoe
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 puaʻa
(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.
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 Hawaiʻi. 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.
Estuaries and streams were adapted into fishponds by early Polynesian
settlers, as early as 1500 or more years ago. Packed earth and cut
stone were used to create habitat, making ancient Hawaiian aquaculture
among the most advanced of the original peoples of the Pacific. A
notable example is the
Menehune Fishpond dating from at least
1,000 years ago, at Alekoko. At the time of Captain James Cook's
arrival, there were at least 360 fishponds producing 2,000,000 pounds
(900,000 kg) of fish per year. Over the course of the last
millennium, Hawaiians undertook "large-scale canal-fed pond field
irrigation" projects for kalo (taro) cultivation.
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 Hawaiʻi 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.
Hāpaialiʻi and Keʻeku Heiau
A traditional town of ancient Hawaiʻi included several structures.
Listed in order of importance:
Heiau, temple to the gods. There were two major types. The
agricultural mapele type was dedicated to Lono, and could be built by
the nobility, priests, and land division chiefs, and whose ceremonies
were open to all. The second type, luakini, were large war temples,
where animal and human sacrifices were made. 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 luakini could only
be entered by aliʻi, the king, important chiefs and nobility, and
kahuna who were members of the
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.
Kāhili, 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
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
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.
18th century Hawaiian helmet and cloak, signs of royalty.
Ancient Hawaiʻi was a caste society developed from Polynesians. The
main classes were:
Aliʻi. This class consisted of the high and lesser chiefs of the
realms. They governed with divine power called mana.
Kahuna. Priests conducted religious ceremonies, at the heiau and
elsewhere. Professionals included master carpenters and boatbuilders,
chanters, dancers, genealogists, physicians and healers.
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.
Kauwā. They are believed to have been war captives or the descendants
of war captives. Marriage between higher castes and the kauwā was
strictly forbidden. The kauwā 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.).
Hawaiian youth learned life skills and religion at home, often with
grandparents. For "bright" children  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. The various types of kahuna passed on knowledge of their
profession, be it in "genealogies, or mele, or herb medicine, or canoe
building, or land boundaries," 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
The kahuna took the apprentice into his household as a member of the
family, although often "the tutor was a relative". 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."  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.
In Hawaiian ideology, one does not "own" the land, but merely dwells
on it. The belief was that both the land and the gods were immortal.
This then informed the belief that land was also godly, and therefore
above mortal and ungodly humans, and humans therefore could not own
land. 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 "managers" 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 ahupuaʻa as their source of water
management. Each ahupuaʻa 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
Religion and the
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 (ʻAikapu 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 might have come from a second wave of
migrations in 1000–1300 from which different religions and systems
were shared between Hawaiʻi and the Society Islands. Hawaiʻi would
have been influenced by the Tahitian chiefs, the kapu system would
have become stricter, and the social structure would have changed.
Human sacrifice would have become a part of their new religious
observance, and the aliʻi would have gained more power over the
counsel of experts on the islands.
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
Kū (God of War), Kāne (God of Light
Kanaloa (God of Death), and
Lono (God of peace and growth).
Well-known lesser gods include Pele (Goddess of Fire) and her sister
Hiʻiaka (Goddess of Dance). 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 were 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. From this mystical
perspective, in addition to his presence in lightning 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, special cultural emphasis was placed on ʻawa (kava) due to
its narcotic properties. 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. Different varieties of
the root were used by different castes, and the brew served as an
"introduction to mysticism".
Main article: Ruling chiefs of Hawaii
The four biggest islands, the island of Hawaiʻi, Maui,
Oʻahu were generally ruled by their own aliʻi nui (supreme ruler)
with lower ranking subordinate chiefs called aliʻi ʻaimoku, ruling
individual districts with land agents called konohiki.
All these dynasties were interrelated and regarded all the Hawaiian
people (and possibly all humans) as descendants of legendary parents,
Wākea (symbolizing the air) and his wife Papa (symbolizing the
earth). Up to the late eighteenth century, the island of Hawaiʻi had
been ruled by one line descended from Umi-a-Liloa. At the death of
Keaweʻīkekahialiʻiokamoku, a lower ranking chief, Alapainui,
overthrew the two sons of the former ruler who were next in line as
the island's aliʻi nui.
Assuming five to ten generations per century, the
dynasties were around three to six centuries old at 1800 CE. The
Tahitian settlement of the Hawaiian islands is believed to have taken
place in the thirteenth century. The aliʻi and other social castes
were presumably established during this period.
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)
Maui became the chief canoe manufacturer. The island of
Hawaiʻi exchanged bales of dried fish.
First recorded European 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 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 kapa) 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.
Within a few decades
Kamehameha I used European warfare tactics and
some firearms and cannon to unite the islands into the Kingdom of
Mary Kawena Pukui, scholar of ancient Hawaiian culture
List of monarchs (
Aliʻi ʻAimoku) of Hawaii
List of monarchs (
Aliʻi ʻAimoku) of Kauai
List of monarchs (
Aliʻi ʻAimoku) of Oahu
List of monarchs (
Aliʻi ʻAimoku) of Maui
List of monarchs (
Aliʻi ʻAimoku) of Molokaʻi
^ a b c d Janet M. Wilmshurst, Terry L. Hunt, Carl P. Lipo, and Atholl
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^ a b Charles E.M. Pearce; F. M. Pearce (17 June 2010). Oceanic
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^ Emory, K.P., W.J. Bonk and Y.H. Sinoto. 1959. Hawaiian Archaeology:
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^ The best survey of these stories, all collected in the latter part
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^ Adams, 2006, pp. 90–92
^ Burney, Back to the Future in the Caves of Kaua'i. pp. 83
^ a b Costa-Pierce, B.A. (1987). "
Aquaculture in ancient Hawaii"
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^ Burney, Back to the Future in the Caves of Kaua'i. pp.60-62
^ Kirch, Hawaiki, Ancestral Polynesia. pp. 130-131
^ Dye, Tom. "Population Trends in Hawai'i Before 1778." The Hawaiian
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^ Linda W. Greene (1993). "Chapter 1, E.6.d". A Cultural History of
Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island.
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service
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^ a b c Handy and Pukui, The Polynesian Family System in Ka-'U,
Hawai'i pp. 90
^ Dudley, M. K. Man, Gods, and Nature. pp. 95
^ Handy, E. S. C. Ancient Hawaiian Civilization pp. 55-57
^ Rosenfeld, Alan. "Ancient Polynesia." 19 Nov. 2013. p.13. Lecture.
^ Polynesian Migrations.
Hawaii History. 14 November 2010 Archived
July 26, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
^ a b Dudley, Man, Gods, and Nature. pp. 77
^ Handy, Ancient Hawaiian Civilization. pp. 63
^ Kamakau 1961, pp. 103–104
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