By the time of European contact, the early Hawaiian population, in spite of their unique and sometimes difficult island environment, had established a complex civilization that included all the necessities for survival as well as for recreational pursuits and artistic expression. Characterized by a rigid class social structure and a highly organized political system, this culture based social status and prestige on genealogy, whereby governing chiefs attained their power through their perceived direct descendancy from the gods.
As Dr. E.S. Craighill Handy states, the ancient Hawaiians created a complex culture characterized by highly developed agricultural and aquacultural systems; advanced engineering technology; an intensive and productive fishing industry; a high degree of technical skill in areas such as celestial navigation and in various crafts such as canoe-making; outstanding artistry in the production of kapa cloth, sculptures and featherwork; and an extremely intricate political, social, and ceremonial system characterized by dancing, poetry, music, and mythology.
The arrival of Captain Cook in 1778 and subsequent visitations by Europeans introduced a myriad of new material goods and concepts, as well as problems. New, unknown diseases and a declining birth rate would decimate a once healthy population. Iron in the form of knives, nails, and other tools would dramatically alter native technology. The introduction of explosives and firearms, along with European military knowledge, would eventually enable an aggressive chief from the island of Hawai'i to unite the islands. The nation's economic base would shift from a subsistence economy to a barter system, and the rising importance placed on the acquisition of Western goods, on private enterprise, and on personal aggrandizement would redefine social interactions and the culture's value system. Land use would change with the introduction of new plant and animal species. Altered lifestyles resulting from the addition of European goods and the new concepts of property rights would result in the modification or rebuilding of native homesteads. Some redistribution of the population would occur, causing disintegration of the native kinship structure. And finally, the overthrow of the kapu system and the destruction of the visible signs of its power would leave the people quite suddenly without a regulatory social or political framework and with drastically restyled social interrelationships. The arrival of missionaries would result in conversion of the islands to Christianity, and their descendants would eventually dominate many of the financial and business aspects of the Hawaiian community. The Hawaiian people in the late eighteenth century were poised on the brink of an almost complete cultural transformation.