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


B. Origins of Hawaiian Population

Probably beginning about 1000 B.C. or earlier, small groups of people from western Melanesia or southeast Asia migrated toward the Pacific into the western part of Polynesia. Their colonization attempts were highly successful for several reasons. A seafaring population, they had developed strong double-hulled outrigger canoes that could carry many people and supplies and travel great distances. They had well developed celestial and other navigational skills that not only allowed far-flung colonization efforts but also enabled round trips between parent and daughter colonies. Finally, they had perfected the horticultural, hunting, and fishing technologies needed to sustain fledgling populations on previously uninhabited islands. These colonists, who became the ancestors of a hybrid people known today as Polynesians, ultimately spread to all other islands of the Triangle. [6]

The Hawaiians are a branch of these peoples inhabiting the eastern tier of islands in the Pacific Ocean. The other principal branches were the Maori of New Zealand and the Samoans, Tongans, Tahitians, Cook Islanders, and Marquesans. [7] According to Anthropologist Patrick Kirch, there is strong evidence from a number of early Hawaiian archeological sites that initial colonization of some of the islands had occurred by at least the fourth or fifth centuries A.D. by people from the Marquesas Islands. [8]

It is thought there were additional waves of immigrants to Hawai'i beginning in the twelfth century from the Society Islands (Tahiti). Evidence exists, and Hawaiian tradition suggests, that the route between Tahiti and Hawai'i was traversed frequently by large double-hulled canoes during this later period, return voyages possibly being made to renew contacts and secure skilled labor and additional plants and animals. The role of external contacts (migrations) in the evolution of Hawaiian culture is still actively debated.

Important new cultural elements forming the framework for the later Hawaiian labor system, social structure, and religious order were introduced during the final migratory period and superimposed upon the aboriginal society of earlier migrations. The leaders of these last arrivals were the ancestors of the ali'i, the chiefly class of Hawaiian society noted by the early discoverers, whose origin and cultural heritage were distinct from those of the older Hawaiian population. [9] After this period of "long voyages" ended, communication ceased between Hawai'i and other areas of Polynesia, and the Hawaiians lived in nearly complete isolation from outside influences until 1778. [10]

C. Origins of Hawaiian Culture

The early migrants from Central Polynesia did not arrive in Hawai'i totally unprepared for life in a new island setting. They brought with them a collective knowledge accumulated over thousands of years of migration from southeast Asia relative to subsistence activities, engineering techniques, adaptation to environmental constraints, and handicrafts that were suited to dealing with the raw materials of a tropical environment. The Polynesian culture of which these settlers were a part emphasized fishing and farming supplemented by dependence on domesticated animals. The development of this culture had also resulted in traditional ways of thinking and patterns of social behavior and formation of specific attitudes towards relationships among individuals and between individuals and nature.

Peter H. Buck, a former director of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu, points out that there was no single Polynesian culture when foreigners first made contact. The only common culture would have existed when people were living in one island group before dispersing elsewhere. From that point on, each island group proceeded to develop its own culture, specializing in different directions while still retaining some fundamental elements of the early common culture. When the term "Polynesian culture" is applied to that functioning at the time of European contact, it is an abstraction referring to common features or general similarities underlying local differences in culture within Polynesia. [11]

The first voyagers to the Hawaiian Islands would have brought with them only some of the cultural variations and subsistence items present in the various Polynesian societies, which would have become the basic agricultural staples of the Hawaiian economy. Not only did these prehistoric peoples make extensive changes in the Hawaiian landscape, modifying and manipulating the habitat to suit their needs, but they also had to live with certain constraints exercised by nature that greatly affected the development of their culture. These factors set certain directions in terms of needed skills and a subsistence base and gradually led to a culture very distinct from the Polynesian homeland. The social and political organization and the religious practices that emerged as part of this new Hawaiian society were related to the peoples' past experiences as well as to their adaptations to the ecosystems of their new home. [12]

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001