Early Hawaiians

black and white photo of double hulled canoes in water
Traditional double-hulled canoes Polynesians presumably used to come to Hawaiʻi nearly 1,000 years ago

NPS Photo

Settling the Islands

Coming from a tradition of voyaging expertise and canoe making, Polynesians from the area now known as the Marquesas Islands were the first humans to visit and settle the Hawaiian Islands between 1000- 1200 AD. Keen observers of natural phenomenon such as the stars, migratory birds, ocean currents, rainbows, and whales, Polynesians crossed over 2,000 miles of ocean in double-hulled canoes called “Waʻa.”

These voyagers were not alone. They also brought along many animals and plants to help sustain them at their new homes: puaʻa (pigs), ʻilio (dogs), and moa (chickens); the roots of kalo (taro) and ʻuala (sweet potato); the seeds and saplings of niu (coconut), maiʻa (banana), ko (sugar cane), and other edible and medicinal plants.

After a time of traveling between the Hawaiian Islands and other islands in the Polynesian Triangle, contact with other islands ended. During the following nearly 500 years, a unique Hawaiian culture was developed.

Hawaiian Caste System
Hawaiian caste system

NPS Graphic

Social Hierarchy

During this time, the social heirarchy was delineated into a strict caste system. At the top of this social pyramid were rulers known as Aliʻ i (chiefs.) On the next rung below the Aliʻ i were the kahuna (professionals,) who were experts on the spiritual realm, medicines, canoe-building, and rituals. Below them were the maka ʻainana (commoners) who farmed, fished, built homes, and paid taxes to the Aliʻi. The lowest rung were the kauwa (outcasts and slaves.) Kauwa were villagers who ran afoul of an Aliʻi or kahuna, or were war prisoners.

Hawaiians lived by a strict set of laws known as kanawai. Certain people, places, and things were kapu (forbidden.) Kapu established rules for behavior. For example, women and men ate separately. Also, women were forbidden from eating certain foods such as pork, coconuts, and bananas. Kapu also ensured the conservation of resources with restrictions on the amount and types of fish caught, the amount and types of seeds planted, and the harvesting of crops. Any breaking of Kapu rules could result in punishment by death or becoming a kauwa.

Daily life for a villager was varied and consisted of tasks to ensure the survival of the community. Villagers engaged in fishing, collecting seaweed, salt, and shellfish at the shoreline while raising dogs, chickens, and pigs in their farm plots. Men and women each had separate daily tasks as well. Men pounded kalo into poi, while women beat the bark of the wauke (paper mulberry) into kapa (bark cloth.) The villagers also worshipped akua (gods) and told moʻolelo (stories) of their history through mele (song,) oli (chant,) and hula (dance.) Through the generations, these traditions were passed down. The rhythms of daily life were interrupted when the period of contact with the outside world began after the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778. Even though Hawaiians past and present fight to preserve elements of their culture, the islands will never quite be the same.

Explore more on Hawaiian culture through our ethnographic collection.

maui moku map 2
Twelve moku comprise the island of Maui

NPS Graphic

Native Hawaiian Land Divisions- Moku

Prior to European contact Native Hawaiian rulers divided the Hawaiian Islands into distinct political regions. On each of the four larger islands: Kaua'i, O'ahu, Maui, and Hawai'i, lands were divided into wedge-shaped districts called moku.

The moku were further divided into land sections called ahupua'a. Ahupua'a were often bounded by ridgelines and typically encompassed an entire valley from mountain summit to outer reef. This type of land division allowed for each ahupua'a to contain nearly all of the resources that its inhabitants required for survival.

The island of Maui is divided into twelve moku, eight of which intersect within Haleakalā National Park. On the northeast edge of Haleakalā Crater the upper ends of the moku converge into one point, called Pōhaku Pālaha- understood in the literal sense as meaning a smooth or flattened rock. It may also be described as the center from which eight districts of East Maui originate and "spread out" from.

For some Native Hawaiian's the Pōhaku Pālaha is also a representation of the concept of the piko. The piko, or belly-button, is considered a very sacred part of a person's body by Native Hawaiian's, and the Pōhaku Pālaha is considered by some to be the piko for the island of Maui.

Last updated: June 8, 2021

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