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Kingdom of Hawaii - Background

Hawaii comprises the northern apex of the Polynesian Triangle, 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 may 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.

Probably beginning about 1000 BC 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.

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. 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 AD by people from the Marquesas Islands.

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. 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.

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.

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