A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Overview of Hawaiian Prehistory


A. Formation and Description of the Hawaiian Archipelago

Hawaii comprises the northern apex of the Polynesian Triangle (Illustration 1), the name given an area in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean stretching from New Zealand on the south to Hawai'i on the north to Easter Island on the east and encompassing several island groups. All of these populations are thought to be descended from a common ancestral society. The Hawaiian chain is among the most isolated areas in the world, lying approximately 2,100 nautical miles southwest of California and more than 4,000 miles from Japan and the Phillipines. As a consequence of their location, these islands were among the last areas in the world to be discovered and populated but also have served as an important link between North America and Asia. The greatest single distance between any two of the larger Hawaiian Islands is the eighty miles from Kaua'i to O'ahu, while the distances between adjacent islands average twenty-five miles or less. Except for certain wide and dangerous channels that limited communication in some directions, the earliest inhabitants were able to voyage among most islands of the group with relative ease by paddling or sailing canoes. [1]

map of Polynesian Triangle
Illustration 1. Polynesian Triangle, with Hawaiian Islands at northern apex. All peoples within this area are thought to have common ancestry. (Figure 13 in Kirch, Feathered Gods and Fishhooks, p. 23.)

The entire Hawaiian archipelago consists of 132 islands, islets, sand cays, and reefs. [2] Most of the total land area, however, is made up of five major islands — Hawai'i, Maui, O'ahu, Kaua'i, and Moloka'i — and three smaller ones — Lana'i, Ni'ihau, and Kahoolawe — stretching across the Tropic of Cancer. The island of Hawai'i, commonly known as the "Big Island," contains more than twice as much land as the other seven islands combined. The group lies between latitudes 19 degrees and 29 degrees North and longitudes 154 and 179 degrees West. The northern and central, most westerly, leeward islands are small, almost uninhabited, volcanic rocks and coral atolls. The two exceptions are Nihoa and Necker, which were uninhabited at the time of European discovery but contain archeological evidence of earlier human occupation.

The larger islands of the Hawaiian chain comprise the emerged summits of a 1,600-mile-long northwest-southeast trending range of volcanic mountains resting on the Pacific Plate. These shield-shaped basaltic domes have been built up by successive outpourings of lava from vents along a crack in the earth's crust that cooled to solid rock bodies. These islands vary considerably in configuration, land area, rainfall, and vegetation. The oldest eruptive centers are at the northwest (Kaua'i, O'ahu) end of the chain, while the youngest, still active volcanoes are at the southeast end, including Kilauea and Mauna Loa (the world's largest active volcano) on Hawai'i Island. This youngest island has been the focal point of active vulcanism during the period of human occupation. Volcanic eruptions have been a frequent cause of population dislocation, burying settlements and agricultural land under sweeping lava flows. These flows preserve numerous important archeological sites.

The different geological ages of the islands of the Hawaiian chain mean great differences in topography, bespeaking various stages of formation and erosion. The larger islands, which are all dome volcanoes, exhibit a gentle, gradual slope from summit to ocean. The central, mountainous parts of these islands are generally rugged and cover considerable area. Through the years volcanic flows have been subjected to various weathering processes. First chemical weathering gradually works upon the lava, resulting in formation of soil. That action is followed by rainfall-induced stream erosion associated with north-east trade winds — the dominant feature of the Hawaiian climate. Erosion is usually greater on the windward side of the islands where the greatest amounts of rain fall, causing the formation of steep valleys and cliffs, often cut by permanent streams. [3] These predominantly wet, cool areas are forested where not cultivated. It has been estimated that almost fifty percent of the total area of the main islands (6,435 square miles) was forest land in pre-European times. [4] The warmer and drier leeward sides of the islands, more sheltered from the rain, undergo much more gradual erosion and are mostly grassland and scrub, characterized by shallower, trough-like valleys, coastal plains, flat sand or cobble beaches, and occasional coral reefs.

The mild, subtropical climate of Hawai'i has been favorable to the growth of introduced vegetation. Plants and animals native today are descendants of those that arrived over a long period of time by one means or another and spread gradually throughout the islands. Hawai'i's flora and fauna are highly specialized because of their isolation and the great variations in environment on the different islands. [5]

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001