First Polynesians, First Hawaiians

First Polynesians, First Hawaiians

[Illustrations: Voyaging Canoe; Map of Pacific Islands]


Picture a group of brave sailors on a double-hulled voyaging canoe, alone on a vast ocean.  For days upon weeks they sail across the sea, searching for land until finally they come upon eight tiny islands surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean. 

This first discovery of the Hawaiian Islands occurred more than 1,500 years ago.  The sailors were the Polynesian voyagers who became the first Hawaiians.


Poho pono na pe‘a heke a ku ana.

A well-filled topsail helped him to arrive.

Said of a fast traveler.

                                                (Pukui: 2681-293)


The First Polynesians

The story of the Polynesians began about 6,000 years ago when a seafaring people traveled from Asia or Melanesia to the islands of Sāmoa and Tonga.  Their descendants eventually sailed east to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands.  Later they sailed south to New Zealand, east to Easter Island, and north to the Hawaiian Islands. 

By A.D. 1200, the ancient Polynesians voyagers had settled nearly every habitable island over some ten million square miles (30 million sq. km) of the Pacific Ocean.

[Illustration: Migration map]


The first settlers of the Hawaiian Islands likely came from the Marquesas Islands some time between A.D. 200 and A.D. 500.  The Marquesas Islands are a ring of ten steep volcanic islands about 2,500 miles (4,023 km) southeast of the Hawaiian Islands, 740 miles (1,191 km) northeast of Tahiti, and 3,700 miles (5,955 km) west of Peru. 

The ancient Polynesian navigators who discovered the Hawaiian Islands likely began their west-to-east journeys when westerly winds replaced the prevailing easterly trade winds.  If they failed to find land, then they could wait for the trades to return and carry them home.


The First Hawaiians

When the seafaring Polynesians finally reached the Hawaiian Islands, they practiced agriculture in the lowlands and also lived off the sea.  They cleared the lowland forests to plant kalo (Colocasia esculenta, taro), the staple of their diet, which they pounded into poi.  The taro was grown in lo‘i kalo (taro patches), which consisted of earth-lined and rock-terraced fields with networks of irrigation channels.

The Polynesian settlers brought at least 24 (and probably more than 26) useful species of plants with them on their voyaging canoes.  These plants included milo (Thespesia populnea, portia) and kamani (Calophyllum inophyllum, Alexandrian laurel) for wood, kalo (Colocasia esculenta, taro) and ‘uala (Ipomoea batatas, sweet potato) for food, ‘awapuhi kuahiwi (Zingiber zerumbet, shampoo ginger) and noni (Morinda citrifolia, Indian mulberry) for medicine. 

The Polynesian-introduced wauke (Broussonetia papyrifera, paper mulberry) and māmaki (Pipturus species) were used for making kapa (tapa) barkcloth.

Animals brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the early Polynesian settlers included pua‘a (pigs), moa (chickens) and ‘īlio (dogs).  Stowaways on the voyaging canoes included the mo‘o ‘alā (geckos), skinks, and ‘iole (rats).

 Other important plants brought by the first settlers include: niu (Cocos nucifera, coconut palms), pia (Tacca leontopetaloides, Polynesian arrowroot), ‘ōlena (Curcuma longa, turmeric), uhi (Dioscorea alata, yam), the kukui tree (Aleurites moluccana), ti (Cordyline fruticosa, ti), kō (Saccharum officinarum, sugarcane) and mai‘a (Musa species). (See Polynesian-Introduced Plants, Chapter 9.)  

The Polynesian settlers of the Hawaiian Islands caught a variety of fish and shellfish from the ocean, and they ate honu (Chelonia mydas, sea turtles) as well as various species of limu (seaweed).  In the coastal shallows they built large loko i‘a (fishponds), which they kept well stocked with ‘ama ‘ama (Mugil cephalus, mullet), and awa (Chanos chanos, milkfish).

Hale pili, the houses of the Hawaiian Islands’ early inhabitants, were made of pili grass (Heteropogon contortus, twisted beardgrass) placed over a wooden frame.  More information regarding the lives of ancient Hawaiians is presented throughout this text. (See Introductions to Chapters 8 and 9.)

[Photograph: Fishpond]