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Ancient Times in the Islands

The Hawaiian language (Ka '�lelo Hawai'i) was not written until the protestant missionaries arrived from New England in the early 1800s and created the written alphabet.  Much of what we know of the times before contact with westerners is what has been preserved from the chants and legends that were carefully memorized from generation to generation.  Science provides some information, also, though this is clearly imperfect in forming a picture of ancient times.  

Quite simply, we weren't there!  As you explore the Ancient History of the Islands you will find contradictory information.  Try to step back and remember that stories are often used to teach and explain complex ideas and values.   Also keep in mind that if several people see the same event, they will describe it quite differently and they are each telling the truth as they see it or remember it.   As for science, consider that an archaeologist in the year 3001 might find nothing on earth except your bedroom, or maybe just what's under your bed or in your closet.  Would that be a complete picture of life on this planet in 2001?   Probably not.

So with these cautions, we'll share the wealth of information that is available on the Web for learning about ancient times through the arrival of Captain James Cook in the islands in 1778 and the rise of Kamehameha the Great, who unified the islands.  

The Hawaiian Islands are actually the peaks of volcanoes formed over the past 6 million years or so, and are relatively young in geologic time.  The first settlers were migrating Polynesians, who navigated the Pacific in voyaging canoes, believed to have first arrived from the Marquesas Islands with subsequent migrations from Tahiti, and perhaps other Pacific islands.  

Though our knowledge of the early settlers is limited, here's what we do know:

  • nearly all of the habitable islands in the Pacific Ocean were settled hundreds of years before European sailors dared venture beyond the site of land
  • the Polynesians sailed large double-hulled canoes and navigated by keen observation and memorization of the sky, ocean currents, and migratory birds and marine life
  • most volcanic islands could not sustain human life, therefore the Polynesians stocked their canoes with all that would be needed to start life on a new island, such as coconuts, sugar cane and taro, as well as all the supplies needed to survive voyages of several weeks, even months

By the time of Cook's arrival in 1778, the population of Hawai`i had grown to something between 400,000 and 800,000 people, perhaps more.  It was a stone age society since there are no metals found in the islands, however this term might give a false impression that the society was primitive.  Hardly!  Some have estimated that the population of the islands, based on the methods of food production and the living conditions, could have exceeded one million and even approach current day population of 1.2 million.  The big difference:  We can't feed ourselves today and have to import most of the food we eat!

The best introductory offline source for learning more about the people of the islands before the arrival of Europeans is Ancient Hawai`i, by Herb Kawainui Kane, pictured in the left column and available online from Amazon.com and at most bookstores in Hawai`i, or maybe one near you!

The next period in the History of Hawai`i is the Monarchy Years, which begins with the unification of the islands by Kamehameha shortly after the arrival of Captain Cook.

Next:  Monarchy Years


Web Links

Nana I Ke Kumu
(Look to the Source)
- an excellent description of ancient times and ways, and what this means to us today, by Uncle Charlie Maxwell.

Ancient Hawaiians - online project on Kawai Nui Marsh, the largest wetland on O`ahu, includes  ahupua`a (land management); heiau (temple); agriculture; and aquaculture.

Hula in Hawai`i, - detailed history of hula and chant, by Amy Ku'uleialoha Stillman

The Kohola in Hawai`i - humpback whales and their significance, by Uncle Charlie Maxwell.

Magic Island - Planet Hawaii site focusing on the Kumulipo, the genealogy chant and epic poem about creation and the order of life.  

Prehistoric Hawai`i - Information about fossils, soil and other geologic information.

In the Beginning: Hawaiian Gods by Betty Fullard-Leo

The Settlement of Polynesia by Dennis Kawaharada

The 24 "Canoe Plants" of Ancient Hawai`i - Polynesians didn't leave home without them!

Hawaiian Lua - describes ancient  martial arts, by Bob Reish

Makahiki - Hawaii's annual festival and its significance in the culture are explained.

Rooted in Native Soil - Essay by Edward Halealoha Ayau explaining the cultural and historical importance of proper respect and treatment of ancestral remains.

ThinkQuest Projects

How Our Hawaiian Islands were Formed

Hawaiian Mythology

Hawaiian Style  

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