Ancient Hawaiian Culture: a Brief History

Archaelogists divide the early part of Hawaiian settlement into the settlement and expansion periods. The first Hawaiians arrived in small numbers, possibly just a few hundred, and were able to settle in the prime areas along the windward coasts, mainly of the Western islands at first. Kamakau says “O’ahu was the place where the first man was made” (Sterling and Summers, 1978, p. 216). The Kumuhonua creation story says that the first man was made at Mokapu peninsula in Kane’ohe, O’ahu. Arcaeology agrees with myth, showing that early settlement would have been on O’ahu and Kauai. Kirch (1985, p. 68) states “it is likely that the first colonization occurred … perhaps by A.D. 300,” and Windward O‘ahu is one of the candidates for earliest settlement. Places like Waimanalo and Kualoa, on O’ahu, Halele‘a Kaua’i, and Halawa valley, Moloka’i, were some of the early population centers. Kirch (1985, 87) concludes:

There is now firm evidence from the Bellows [Waimanalo], Kawainui, and Pu’u Ali’i sites, that the Hawaiian Islands were first settled as early as the fourth to fifth centuries [300s to 400s AD]. By the sixth to eighth centuries, additional settlements and camps were established at Hålawa, Kahana, and Wai’ahukini, with evidence of early agricultural activity at Halele’a on Kaua’i.


Stories of a chief named Hawai’i loa have been circulated, telling of his finding Hawai’i on a fishing voyage, but Emory states that these stories began to be told in the 1840s, and incorporate “information obtained through European contact” (Cordy, 2000, 100).

“Hawaiians used the word Kahiki – often translated as Tahiti in English – to refer to an original homeland in central Polynesia” (Cordy, 2000, 102).

Handy and Buck argued in the 1920s that “impoverished settlers” called manahune came to Hawai’i via Eastern Polynesia, and that these were the menehune of Hawaiian legend (Cordy, 2000, 102).

The notion that Hawaiians arrived from Tahiti was popular until the 1960s when linguistic and archaelogical evidence began to point to the Marquesas as a source of Hawaiian settlement (Cordy, 2000, 103).

Polynesians were the great navigators of the ancient world. They covered the vast distances of the Pacific in two-way voyaging for hundreds of years, all with stone tools.

They felled large trees. Legendary navigators relied on the currents of the ocean and the stars were used as a compass. They carried everything they needed to recreate their world. Somethimes visitors were warmly welcomed, other times fiercely challenged as with the Maori of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Cook was amazed to find that the far-flung Polynesians were “the most ­­­­widespread nation on Earth.”[1] Tupaea, a Tahitian who was used by Cook as a translator, amazed the British when it was demonstrated that the Maori understood him. In Rapanui/Easter Island Cook wondered where they got the wood for their canoes.

In Hawai’i Cook found a thriving society. Cook thought that Polynesians had come from Asia, but could not explain how they had sailed against the prevailing wind. Thor Heyerdahl proved that one could reach Polynesia from South America using the prevailing winds. But all other evidence – language, lapita pottery, etc, – pointed to a Westward pattern of settlement from Indonesia, and Asia. Hokule’a was built in 1975 to recreate the central object of Polynesian culture. This canoe proved Heyerdahl and the skeptics wrong. Mau Piailug was a navigator from Satawal, in Micronesia, who taught Nainoa Thompson and others how to navigate this canoe to Tahiti, an area where he had no experience. Using things such as the color of the sky and the sun at sunrise and sunset, and using the stars as a compass, the navigators recreated their ancestors’ knowledge of the oceanic world. The achievement of reaching Tahiti silenced the skeptics who had previously dismissed the idea of purposeful voyaging.


Estimates of settlement dates have fluctuated over the past century. Genealogically-based dates put Hawaiian settlement at around 450 AD, by some accounts. For example, the Nana’ulu line of Hawai’I chiefs was said to be the oldest line, extending back 43 generations from settlement. This led to an estimate of 450 AD.

With the development of radio-carbon dating, these estimates began to be revised forward, first to approximately 1000 AD. But as more archaelogical evidence was gathered, these dates began to be revised themselves, finally settling around 300 AD (Cordy, 2000, 105).[2]

Between 900 and1100 AD things began to change – war increased along with a dramatic rise in population. The arrival and introductions of the priest Pa‘ao facilitated a transition to a more rigidly structured and hierarchical society.


Social and Political developments that illustrate the evolution of Hawaiian society include population increase and technological progress. The population increased from a small number of settlers to hundreds of thousands – debate continues over the precise number, but estimates range from 250,000 to nearly a million at the time of Cook’s arrival in 1778 (Stannard, 1989). Greater complexity was attained in material culture, such as fishing hooks and adzes. Complex production systems were developed , such as irrigated lo’i kalo (taro plantations) and fishponds. The Hawaiian fishponds were the most advanced in the world and were capable of exponentially increasing fish production, and thus population. The settlement pattern shifted from initial settlement in windward valleys to settlement and agricultural development in nearly all habitable areas of the archipelago. Finally, the Hawaiian socio-political structure grew increasingly complex, evolving from family hierarchies to the Ali’i system, in which Ali’i had far reaching power. The extent of this power is debatable. While it is normally held that Ali’i power was absolute, the presence of near constant rebellions suggests that this power was checked by that of the other classes, namely kahuna and maka’ainana, who could support an opposing chief if unsatisfied with the current one.

Three chiefs exemplify the political, and cultural system in what could be termed the classical Hawaiian society: Pa’ao, Ma’ilikukahi and ‘Umi-a-liloa.

Pa’ao was a priest from either Tahiti or Samoa, who left his homeland because of oppressive conditions. Pa‘ao brought the Ali’i Pilika’ai’ea to Hawai’i between 900 and 1100 AD. According to Westervelt, Pa‘ao recognized that Hawaiians had a “reverence … for blood royal.”[3] Pili rejuvenated Ali’i bloodlines while Pa‘ao gained “unbounded influence” over the religious domain.[4] This began the more structured Ali’i and kapu systems. Pa’ao introduced the institutions of human sacrifice and the Luakini heiau (temple for warfare), as well as the temple drum. Pa‘ao can be seen as imposing traditional Tahitian/Polynesian society on Hawai‘i, rather than a revolutionary, he was a traditionalist from a foreign land.

In addition to being the last O’ahu chief to ward off the Maui and Hawai‘i island chiefs, Ma‘ilikukahi clarified land divisions on O’ahu, thereby creating a more structured ahupua’a system in approximately 1350 AD. The ahpua’a was a central organizing principle of the Hawaiian economy. These land divisions from mountain to sea were largely self-sufficient as the contained all resources from mountaintops to coast, including the ocean resources. Ma‘ilikukahi was known as Ali‘i pono – a righteous or just chief – this is seen in the fact that no chiefs rebelled against him (Kamakau, 1991, p. 55).


A famous story tells of the union between Liloa, King of Hawai‘i island and Akahiakuleana, a commoner, in the countryside.[5] (see [inset?] ʻStory of ʻUmiʻ] The King told Akahi that if the child is a boy, to name him ‘Umi and if it was a girl, to name the child on her side of the family. After leaving heirlooms to signify the child’s kinship to the King, Liloa returned to his home in Waipi‘o valley. Umi presented the King with the heirlooms in his old age, and went on to unify the island of Hawai‘i, defeating his brother Hakau. ‘Umi is significant for instituting division of labor – he “selected workers and set them in various positions in the kingdom” – and beginning a well-defined ahupua’a system on Hawai’i (as Ma’ilikukahi did on O’ahu) in 1600 A.D. ‘Umi was also known as Ali’i pono – many traditional Hawaiian metaphors can be seen in his story.


In a chapter of Hawaiian Antiquities he entitled “The Civil Polity,” David Malo uses a metaphor of a body to describe traditional Hawaiian government and society.[6] The head in this metaphor represents the Mo’i or King. The shoulders and chest represent the Ali’i (Chiefs). The left hand represented the Kalaimoku. Malo uses the Western analogy of the Interior minister or Prime minister to describe this position. This political expert was responsible for war, administration of the royal court, and checking genealogies of potential court members in an elaboate ritual in the hale naua. The right hand in this analogy represented the Kahuna or high priest. The Kahuna advised the King on religious matters, and enforced kapu, encouraging the King to enforce the kapu by “kill[ing] off the ungodly people.”[7] The right foot represented na koa, the soldiery, and the left foot the mahi’ai and lawai’a (farmers and fishermen).

[1] Journals of James Cook

[2] This is actually an average of two schools of thought, one placing settlement between 0 and 300 AD, and another placing settlement between 300 and 600 AD. See Cordy, 2000.

[3] W.D. Westervelt, Hawaiian Historical Legends. London: Fleming H. Revell Company, 77.

[4] Westervelt, 77.

[5] See Samuel M. Kamakau, Ruling Chiefs of Hawai‘i, Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools Press, 1 – 21.

[6] David Malo, Hawaiian Antiquities, Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press [YEAR] , 187.

[7] Malo 188.

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