The Development of a Unique Hawaiian Culture

The Development of a Unique Hawaiian Culture

After the Polynesians settled in the Hawaiian Islands, they continued to sail and migrate between the Hawaiian Islands and the islands of southern Polynesia. Sometime around A.D. 1300 the Hawaiians’ contact with southern Polynesia may have ceased (or significantly decreased), and Hawaiians no longer pursued long distance, open-ocean voyages. It was particularly during this extended period of isolation that a unique Hawaiian culture developed.

When Captain Cook and his crew arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, they found a friendly, self-sufficient and productive people with all the components of a highly developed culture. There was a fairly rigid caste structure, though the Hawaiians also maintained a system of communal subsistence based on the natural resources of wedge-shaped land divisions known as ahupua‘a. Formed naturally by mountain ridges and extending from the high valley to the seashore and the coral reefs, the ahupua‘a contained all of the different resources important for survival. An ancient Hawaiian proverb states, “O kau aku, o ka ia la mai, pelā ka nohona o ka ‘ohana” (“From you and from him—so lived the family,”) meaning “The farmer gave to the fisherman, the fisherman to the farmer.”[i]

The culture of ancient Hawai‘i was different in many ways from other Polynesian cultures. For example, a unique Hawaiian language evolved, and it is still considered among the most fluid and melodic of any language known.

Hawaiians built the finest pili grass houses, and their magnificently crafted weavings of featherwork were unmatched anywhere. Of all the Pacific cultures, the Hawaiians were the only ones to construct and maintain shoreline loko i‘a (saltwater fishponds).

Fish including pua ‘ama‘ama (Mugil cephalus, young stage of ‘ama‘ama, mullet) and pua awa, the young stage of awa (Chanos chanos, milkfish) entered through the mākāhā (sluice gate) into the fishpond, where they were raised and then eaten when needed.

The mahiole (feather-crested helmets) that ancient Hawaiians constructed with native plants and feathers were found nowhere else in Polynesia. The cap that formed the base of the mahiole was woven from the aerial root of the ‘ie‘ie vine (Freycinetia arborea), which was also used to weave a great variety of twined baskets in many sizes, shapes and designs.

These twined baskets woven from the ‘ie‘ie root were considered the finest in all of ancient Polynesia, a distinction that was also given to the sleeping mats ancient Hawaiians wove from makaloa (Cyperus laevigatus), a native sedge. The makaloa mats, woven with geometrical designs, were known as moena pāwehe.

Also unique to the Hawaiian Islands were some forms of ki‘i pōhaku (petroglyphs), including certain muscled figures found nowhere else.

No other Pacific culture produced such large ipu (Lageneria siceraria, bottle gourds), and this was a testament to ancient Hawaiians’ horticultural skills. The early settlers of the Hawaiian Islands also created many artistically decorated bowls and containers as well as an innovative new method of carrying the containers using a continuous unknotted cord. The pā ipu (double-gourd drum) and the pūniu (coconut knee drum) also were found nowhere else in Polynesia except the Hawaiian Islands.

Ua lehulehu a manomano ka ‘ikena a ka Hawai‘i.

Great and numerous is the knowledge of the Hawaiians.

(Pukui: 2814-309)

Kapa barkcloth was made throughout many tropical areas in ancient times, but the finest kapa was found in Polynesia, and the finest kapa in Polynesia was produced in the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaiian kapa displayed a greater variety of design and texture than the kapa produced by any other Polynesian culture.

The Hawaiians used a fermentation process and second beating of the kapa that produced a homogenous quality generally free of defects, resulting in a fine barkcloth superior to kapa made in other locales. Many different items were made with this kapa, including various clothing items that were colored and scented with a great variety of dyes and fragrances derived from native and Polynesian-introduced plants. The intricate geometric designs that Hawaiians stamped onto kapa were found nowhere else in Polynesia.

Kapa barkcloth was also used for ceremonial purposes. Ancient Hawaiians used the silky pulu (wooly hairs) found on hapu‘u tree ferns (Cibotium species) to embalm their deceased ali‘i (royalty), preserving their bones by wrapping them in kapa and placing them in a remote hidden cave or heiau (sacred place of worship).

Ancient Hawaiians also committed to memory long oli (chants) that were passed down through generations. These chants were often accompanied by dancers performing the sacred art of hula. Wreathed with the woven ferns of the forest, the ancient Hawaiians chanted and danced to give thanks for what they had, and to preserve the stories that deeply enriched their island existence. With their spoken words, Hawaiians passed on their own history and beliefs, recounting the complex genealogies of their ancestors, carrying on their oral traditions, and perpetuating an extensive knowledge of their natural world including species of the land, air and water as well as the currents of the ocean and winds, the migrating patterns of birds, the movements of the stars and the phases of the moon through the months and seasons.


[i] p. 266, Pukui, Mary Kawena. ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983. Proverb 2441.