Hawaiian language (Ka 'Ôlelo 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
- 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,
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.
Nana I Ke
(Look to the Source) - an excellent description of
ancient times and ways, and what this means to us today, by Uncle Charlie
Hawaiians - online project on Kawai Nui Marsh, the largest wetland
on O`ahu, includes ahupua`a
(land management); heiau
in Hawai`i, - detailed history of hula and chant, by Amy
Kohola in Hawai`i - humpback whales and their significance, by
Uncle Charlie Maxwell.
- Planet Hawaii site focusing on the Kumulipo, the genealogy chant and epic poem about creation and the order of life.
Hawai`i - Information about fossils, soil and other geologic
Beginning: Hawaiian Gods by Betty Fullard-Leo
Settlement of Polynesia by Dennis Kawaharada
24 "Canoe Plants" of Ancient Hawai`i - Polynesians didn't leave home without them!
Lua - describes ancient martial arts, by Bob
- 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.
Our Hawaiian Islands were Formed