According to tradition, the first arrival of inhabitants is said to be between 200 and 800 AD, when Polynesians landed their voyaging canoes on Hawaiian shores. This occurred more than 1,000 years before Captain Cook’s ship arrived in Hawaii in 1778.
Hawaiians significantly developed distinctions from other Polynesians cultures, in numerous aspects. Early Hawaiians created and maintained shoreline loko i’a (saltwater fishponds), which no other Polynesian achieved. Their horticultural skills were also refined, and they artistically adorned gourds, bowls and containers in magnificent intricacy. Hawaiians also became distinct in the development of their unique language. The Hawaiian language, consisting of only 13 letters, is one of the oldest languages in the world and is also known to be one of the most melodious and fluid of tongues. Once only an oral language, Christian missionaries who arrived in 1820, helped convert the language into written form so native Hawaiians could read and write.
Ancient Hawaiians were devoted to memorizing lengthy oli (chants) that were passed down through oral tradition. These often consisted of Hawaiian folklore, legends and histories and were accompanied by the sacred performing of hula dance. The hula dances were filled with music, chanting and movement corresponding to depictions of nature, such as the wind or waves, etc. Hula dancing, an integral part of ancient Hawaiian culture, is still actively practiced today.
The early Hawaiians were very active, engaging in a plethora of sports. They designed games to participate in as a community, and ranged from foot racing, to dart throwing, arm-wrestling, advanced versions of tug-of-war, spear throwing, hand-to-hand wrestling, swimming, surfing and canoe-racing.
The spiritual aspect of early Hawaiians was deeply integrated into their culture. Specific species on the islands were considered personal or family gods, aumakua (guardian spirits) that would appear in visions or dreams. These were said to be spiritual or heavenly beings that would take on the form of a physical creature to warn or protect. This communication which flows through the natural world is still present in modern Hawaiian culture.
The religious practices were a definitive aspect of the Hawaiian culture and way of life. The natives built numerous places called heiau, or places of worship and shrines. They were usually built of lava rock, wood or thatched pili grass. Wooden figures representing gods known as ki’i were placed around the heiau. According to tradition, sometime before the year AD 1200, a Tahitian kahuna (priest) by the name of Pa’ao, came to the Hawaiian Islands. Later Pa’ao brought with him a chief named Pili-ka’aiea who became a ruler and began the royal line leading to Kamehameha I, so beginning the 700-year dynasty. Pa’ao also established the first temple of human sacrifice, and introduced the war god Kuka’ilimoku and Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes. Pa’ao created the social order which separated the highest of society from the lowest.
The social structure of Hawaii was similar to a caste-system, with kanawai (strict rules and laws) determining if something was kapu (sacred or forbidden). The system ranked the royalty, chiefs, and royal advisors in the first class, the kahuna (priests and skilled professionals) in the next rank, commoners (maka’ainana), which were mostly farmers, craftsmen and fishermen, would have to bow in the presents of the chiefs and royals, as they possessed more mana (divine power) than they. The lowest members of the society were known as kauwa, which often consisted of slaves, prisoners of war or those of indistinct and low birth.
The kapu system was what ensured the separation from the classes, and dictated much of the daily life of early Hawaiians. For example, if someone broke a kapu, they were subject immediately to punishment, unless they were able to reach a pu’uhonua (a place of refuge) in time for a priest to pardon them. The kapu system caused many Hawaiians to suffer under such extreme religious conditions, as the common people and lowly people had no say over what would happen to their lives, or who came to power over them. Common women faced death for eating bananas, coconuts and other kapu foods. If a common man accidentally trespassed on the land of a royal, then he could be put to death by any mean, such as strangulation, drowning or being clubbed to death.
The kapu system continued for centuries until it was finally abolished in the 19th century when King Kamehameha II ate food publicly with the dowager queens Ka‘ahumanu and Keōpūolani, an action which had for centuries been kapu. This act of defiance encouraged men and women to eat together, and began the downfall of the traditional Hawaiian religious practices, eventually overturning the entire kapu system.
While many of the religious practices and laws of the early Hawaiians have been brought to an end, the beautiful aspects of art, communing with nature, and oral tradition continue, highlighting the best aspects of Hawaiian culture today.