Ancient Hawaii

European Contact - Kingdom of Hawaii


From Republic to State

Sovereignty Movement

Bibliography and Image credits

Natural History

From the source in the slime was the earth formed
From the source in the dark was darkness formed
From the depths of the darkness, darkness so deep
Darkness of day, darkness of night
Of night alone
Did night give birth
                                                - Hawaiian chant of creation (Kumulipo)

The Hawaiian island chain is made up of hundreds of islands spread over nearly 2500 kilometers in the central Pacific Ocean. There are eight main islands: Ni'ihau, Kaua'i, O'ahu, Moloka'i, Lana'i, Kaho'olawe, Maui, and Hawai'i, which lie at the southeastern end of the chain. The islands were created by the volcanic activity of a "hotspot" in the earth's mantle. As the pacific plate moved, the eruption spot shifted, causing the formation of a vast undersea mountain range (Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain), the tops of which make up what are commonly known as the Hawaiian islands. As time progresses, the islands are slowly eroded, the result of which is the gradual increase in the size of the islands as one moves southeastward.

Over a period of nearly 70 million years, the islands went uninterrupted by humans or mammals, and an exstensive endemic plant and animal life developed in complete isolation. However, these species have been steadily declining since humans first arrived on the islands. Today, a majority of the remaining endemic species are severely endangered.

Ancient Hawaiians


The first Polynesian settlers arrived in the islands between 300 A.D. and 800 A.D. The circumstances of the first settlements of Hawaii are debated to this day (some believe there was an initial voyage from the Marquesas followed by a Tahitian invation in around 1300 A.D., whereas others argue there was only one longer period of settlement). There is no doubt however, that these first inhabitants navigated over a very large portion of sea during a time when the western world was barely daring to travel out of sight of the shore. The Polynesians brought everything needed to begin a new colony with them: livestock, clothing, and plants, including the very first mammals the islands had ever seen (mainly pigs, dogs, and chickens). They built structures such as hale (homes) and heiau (temples), the evidence of which reveal the first settlements probably existed on the Big Island and moved northwards, increasing rapidly.


Religion was a very important and ever-present force in the lives of the ancient Hawaiians. Many of the laws were based off of the religion, such as the Kapu (taboo) system, (which the consequence of breaking was most often death). The religion of the ancient Hawaiians was polytheistic, in which the forces of nature, such as war, fire, life, and water, were personified as deities. The cheifs of the realms were called Ali'i and claimed divine power called mana, through which they maintained power. The creation myth of the ancient Hawaiians, similar to many creation myths of the world, tells that all were descended from the two great parents, Wakea (air) and his wife Papa (earth).

Government and Society

Society was organized in a caste system, of which the Ali'i were leaders. Other castes included Kahuna (priests, healers, and other professionals such as chanters or carpenters), and Maka'ainana (commoners). As mentioned above, religion played a huge role in the legal system of the time, dictating when the people could fish, make war, and how they could eat. The four largest islands were normally controlled by Ali'i 'aimoku, or high cheifs, who owned all of the land they had power over. These high cheifs then delegated control of sections of the island to the district ali'i who distributed the land to commoners. In a system resembling the feudal system seen during the Medeival period in Europe, these commoners payed tribute to a konohiki (overseer) in return for being allowed to reside there.