There is still dispute and controversy as to the identity and origin of the first human settlers in the Hawaiian Islands, although most scholars agree, thanks to recent radiocarbon dating, that the initial voyagers sailed from distant islands, known by Polynesians as Kahiki, in the South Pacific, most likely the Marquesas, in the eleventh century A.D.

Around 1200 b.c., the farmers and fishermen who had migrated over centuries from Asia to Australia, Indonesia, and New Guinea began to move slowly across the Pacific, sailing to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, which lie only a few days’ sail from one another, where they became the ancestors of present-day Polynesians. After almost two thousand years, the islanders began to venture farther, eventually reaching Hawai‘i to the north, New Zealand to the southwest, and remote Easter Island to the east. Historians once believed that many of the islands in the Pacific were discovered by fishermen who had been blown off course, although the fact that the first voyagers to Hawai‘i carried with them crops, seeds, and animals, as well as women and children, suggests that the journeys were deliberate and well-prepared.

The double-hulled outrigger canoes of the settlers were eighty to one hundred feet long, rigged with masts, and triangular sails woven of lau hala (the dried leaf of the hala, or pandanus tree). A raised platform, screened and roofed with mats, was lashed across the hulls for the women, children, animals, plants, and, not least of all, the images of the gods that the travelers carried with them. When there was no wind, men sitting two to a bench would paddle with the guidance of a master steersman, who, trained since childhood, used his deep knowledge of the sky, wind, clouds, ocean currents, temperatures, and the habits of sea creatures and birds to guide the canoes across the ocean.

The small companies of perhaps fifty men, women, and children brought with them dogs, pigs, and chickens, as well as food and water. They had seedlings of hibiscus, sugar cane, bamboo, mountain apple, coconut, breadfruit, mulberry, and tubers of wild ginger, kalo (taro), yam, turmeric, and sweet potato. They are thought to have first landed on the desolate southernmost tip of Hawai‘i Island, where the land rises gently to the summit of Mauna Loa. The settlers named their new home Ka‘ū, or “the breast that nursed them,” although the leeward coast would have been dry and hot, with little fresh water. Parts of Ka‘ū are now covered with layer upon layer of lava from successive eruptions. At the time of the first settlers, though, it would have been wood and brush land, interspersed with broad prairies of native grass. (The now ubiquitous kiawe tree was introduced in 1828 by Father Alexis Bachelot, the head of the first Catholic mission; the sugi pine arrived in 1880; the Australian bluegrass gum in 1870; and the bagras eucalyptus in 1929.)

The settlers would have known at once that their new home would not give them all that they needed. There was no reef and few beaches and coves, which meant that there were insufficient amounts of shellfish and seaweed, foods essential to Polynesians, but they would have seen, too, that it was a safe place in which to live, where they would not be threatened by enemies, human or animal. In his 1993 book, The Gifts of Civilization: Germs and Genocide in Hawai‘i, microbiologist, historian, novelist, and professor at the University of Hawai‘i, O. A. Bushnell observes: “Only the sea was treacherous, but only occasionally, and Polynesians are accustomed to the moods of Kanaloa [the god of the sea].”

The environment of Hawai‘i Island, owing to trade winds from the northeast, the height of the mountains, and the warmth of the surrounding ocean, can shift within a few miles from bog to rain forest to coastal shrub, all with widely different levels of wind and rainfall. In the north, on the windward side, the earliest Polynesian settlers of the eleventh century would find streams and springs, grasses, and trees. Thanks to the lush inland forests, the island would have been less windy than it is now, and there would have been more rainfall (eighteenth-century travelers describe snow on Mauna Loa in July and August).

The hills of Kohala in the north would have been rolling grassland, much as they are today, with an occasional grove of native ‘ōhi‘a trees. In time, the settlers ventured to other islands in the archipelago. Cultivation began in Waialua Valley on O‘ahu, and Hālawa on Moloka‘i. On Hawai‘i Island, fertile Waipi‘o Valley was settled, and the sloping mauka (inland) highlands of Kona, Ka‘ū, and Kohala, as the settlers sought the verdant valleys where water could be found, spreading across the hills and plains overlooking the ocean to settle on land where soil and rainfall were sufficient for their simple needs. In the beginning, the settlers lived in caves, low rock shelters built on hillsides or near the ocean, and in lava tubes, which are formed when a river of hot lava forces a path under lava that has already cooled and hardened. They built houses of grass in small villages near rich fishing grounds, although bays and inlets amenable to fishing or the use of canoes were few in relation to the length of coastline. To bring their canoes safely ashore, ladders were built with wooden runners or steps to make easier the task of pulling canoes from the rough surf, and over sharp lava. Those living near the shore bartered fish, seaweed, shellfish, and salt for the produce grown by those living in the hills and gulches. The historian Mary Kawena Pukui (1895–1986) described the sharing of food during her childhood in the book The Polynesian Family System in Ka‘ū:

In the days of the horse-drawn vehicle, [people traveling between Hilo and Ka‘ū] often stopped at my aunt’s to pass the night—usually unexpected. There was no market . . . and whatever of fish and meat there was, was salted. The family gave guests poi—paste made from kalo—and the best salted meat, even if it was the last . . . Cowboys came too, tired and hungry, to share the salted fish, or meat with poi. Sometimes, they came with a portion of a wild bullock or pig—then there was fresh meat. But only for that meal.





Portrait of Hawaiian woman with necklace, graphite on paper, George Henry Burgess, 1870


As the settlers began to clear the endemic vegetation to grow the subsistence plants they brought with them, many native plants disappeared from areas of cultivation. The forest was both altered and exploited as trees were used to make canoes, house posts, religious statues, weapons, and utensils. The bird population, with few if any predators before the arrival of the settlers, was reduced by hunting, both for food and later to make kāhili (royal standards) and lei, and the feather helmets and capes worn by the chiefs. More than six hundred species of fish were once found in Hawaiian waters, and fish were farmed in carefully tended ponds built along the shore with sluice gates to allow passage of both fish and clean tidal water. Sweet potato and arrowroot, gourd vines, (the small evergreen Cordyline fruticosa), sugarcane, breadfruit, and coconut were planted. Kalo was tended with reverence, and the preparation and eating of it was an act complex in meaning. A square mile of kalo was capable of feeding fifteen thousand people; forty square feet could support one man for a year. As there were no fireproof cooking utensils or vessels—no iron or clay with which to make them—food, usually eaten cold, was first cooked in lined pits in the ground, or in calabashes into which hot stones had been dropped.

Unlike rice, which causes an acid reaction in the body, kalo is full of vitamins A and B. It was early remarked by Europeans that Polynesian chiefs were unusually well developed in contrast to the ethnic stock from which they most likely descended, and it has been suggested that the switch from an acidic starch (rice) to that of poi was responsible for the robust health and beauty of the ali‘i.



    High chief, wearing a mahiole or feather helmet, painting in oil by John Webber, 1787


Poi, rich in mineral and organic salts, was largely responsible for the large jaw structure of Hawaiians and their exceptionally fine teeth. The uniformity and strength of their teeth were later to astonish foreign sailors (no difficult task given the teeth of eighteenth-century English and Irishmen), as was the size of their bodies, particularly those of the ali‘i, which in both men and women was frequently more than six feet in height. The Reverend Charles S. Stewart, who served as a missionary on Maui from 1823-1825, found the ali‘i, who were not simply local nobility but thought to be avatars of the gods, superior to commoners in their physical appearance. In his Journal of a Residence in the Sandwich Islands During the Years 1823, 1824, and 1825, he wrote:

They seem indeed in size and stature to be almost a distinct race. They are all large in their frame, and often excessively corpulent; while the common people are scarce of the ordinary heights of Europeans, and of a thin rather than full habit . . . although little more than twenty-five years old, [one chief] is so remarkably stout, as to be unequal to any exertion, and scarcely able to walk without difficulty. This immense bulk of person is supposed to arise from the care taken of them from their earliest infancy . . . Many of the common people . . . have a great beauty of person, though of a less noble scale.

The first people to settle Hawai‛i lived secluded and isolated lives until the beginning of the fourteenth century, when, according to Polynesian folklore, legends, and chants, a second migration of voyagers made the journey north from Tahiti, a distance of 2,626 miles. The later migrations are known as the Long Voyages. Like the earlier journeys, they are now thought to have been forays of exploration, rather than a flight from internecine struggle, war, famine, or epidemic. The travelers brought seeds and animals with them, but they also carried new gods, powerful beings who demanded the enactment of a system of strict kapu.


young woman ca 1880 A.A. Montano.jpg

     Young Hawaiian woman wearing maile lei, eight hundred years after the first settlers from Polynesia arrived in the Islands, photograph by A. A. Montano, ca. 1880

For perhaps one hundred years, there was sporadic warfare between the original settlers and the aggressive newcomers from Tahiti. The Tahitians prevailed, and those earlier settlers who did not become assimilated through marriage were believed to be transformed over generations into the elusive nocturnal elves known as Menehune. Whimsically and perhaps guiltily described as our memories of the past, the Menehune are said to have found refuge in the mountains, where some people still claim to hear their plaintive sighs and murmurs, although the ability to see them is denied to all but their own kind. They are thought to creep after dark from the caves and hollow trees where they live, summoned to build in one night a ditch, or a heiau, or a house constructed of the bones of birds.

As the number of new settlers from Polynesia grew, the original inhabitants slipped into servitude. Mary Kawena Pukui believed that the outcast slaves known as kauwā, kept for human sacrifice, may have been the descendants of the earliest people. Kauwā, who were regarded as foul-smelling things, were tattooed on their foreheads and made to hide their heads under pieces of kapa. Like the Untouchables of India, kauwā were scapegoats born into and imprisoned within an abhorred class. Confined to certain districts such as Makeanehu in Kohala, and Kalaemamo in Kona on the Big Island, they were forbidden to marry outside their caste, or even to enter the house or yard of a man who was not kauwā.