Maui Island, Hawaii

Cultural History of Hawaii

Spanning less than 2,000 years, Hawaiian history is one of the.briefest in the world, with much of it shrouded in legend. And.yet it equals the world's best for bloodshed, irony, and heroism. Hawaii has had to adapt to waves of invasion and immigration, and now supports one of the world's most ethnically diverse cultures.

The islands were formed by volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Ocean, more than 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from the nearest landmass. Life on the isolated Hawaiian archipelago evolved from wind-borne spores and seeds, corky fruits that drifted in the sea, and the occasional hardy bird blown off course by a storm. Sea creatures had difficulty reaching the islands, as the North Pacific currents push life-rich plankton away from Hawaii. As a result, the unspoiled island ecosystem consisted of thousands of unique species that evolved by adapting to the new environment.

The Polynesians, whose culture was established in the island clusters of Samoa and Tonga between 2,000 and 1,500 BC, possessed a remarkable seafaring technology. They traveled in twin-hulled voyaging canoes that carried up to 100 passengers plus planting stocks of crops (taro, coconut, sweet potato, banana) and pairs of domesticated animals (pigs, dogs, and chickens). These explorers colonized the Society Islands (Tahiti) and the Marquesas Islands in the first century AD. Around AD 300 the Marquesans dared the 3,000-mile (5,000-km) ocean crossing to discover the Hawaiian islands. Archaeologists have based this date on excavations of habitation sites at Waimanalo (Oahu), Halawa Valley (Molokai), and Ka Lae (Hawaii Island). Hawaiian ancestral chants, which were rigorously preserved in oral tradition, carried family lines back further, to the first century.


The early Hawaiians established an advanced, spiritual culture. Dedicated farmers and stone-builders, they were the first to alter a landscape that had evolved in isolation for millions of years.

They divided the land into ahupuaa, pie-shaped wedges running from the mountain top to the sea, providing each district with access to the full range of island resources. They also built monumental heiau (temples) and some of the largest irrigation systems in Polynesia.

Life centered on the ohana (extended family) of 250 to 300 people, in which everyone from keiki (child) to kupuna(grandparent) was vital to the whole.

Cultural values included aloha aina (love of land), laulima (cooperation), and pa'ahana (hard work).


During the 12th and 13th centuries, new waves of Polynesian settlers came from the Society Islands (Tahiti). According to oral tradition, the invasions were cruel and bloody. Casting themselves as reformers of a weakened Polynesian race, they established a rigid class system with themselves as alii (chiefs) who regulated the lives of the maka'ainana (commoners) through the harshly enforced kapu system.

Derived from the Tahitian term "taboo," kapu designated any activity that was forbidden because it interfered with the apportionment of mana (supernatural power). Women, for example, were forbidden to eat with men.

Commoners could not touch the clothes or shadows of the nobility, or lift their heads higher than the chiefs'. Punishment for infractions was quick and fatal, and the alii rededicated temples as luakini heiau, for human sacrifice.

The chief figure in this reform was the Tahitian priest Pa'ao, who probably made several journeys between the two archipelagos. He established a line of kuhina nui (high priests) and brought a chief named Pili, probably from Samoa, to consolidate political power.

For unknown reasons, these voyages ceased after the 13th century.