As we are currently so dependent on our 21st Century technology, it is hard to imagine how the ancient Pacific Islanders accomplished their incredible feats. Without most of what we now regard as essential to modern lifestyles, the people of Pasifika explored the largest ocean on the planet and built a culture that was both complex and efficient in feeding the people and sustainably managing its earth and ocean resources.

Hawaii’s history, recorded in story and legend, is a proud one that dates back at least a thousand years before American colonies became a nation in 1776.

It is widely believed that the first migration to Hawaii came from the Marquesas, some 2,000 miles away,  in 600 or 700 AD. But oral histories from Molokai indicate that when the Marquesans arrived, Hawaii was already inhabited. It is not known from where these first inhabitants - Ka Po‘e Kahiko, the People of Old, may have originated. Another migration took place in about 1100 AD, this time from what is now known as the Society Islands.

Their ships were sturdy double-hull sailing canoes, built with tools of stone, wood and shell, lashed together with ropes made of coconut fiber sennit, and outfitted with sails woven from lauhala. These voyages, carried out by skilled seamen that have had no equal before or since, relied on celestial navigation and close observation of currents, winds, seabirds, schools of fish, and myriad other natural phenomena.

Wherever Polynesians explored and established new settlements, they carried an ancient memory of an original homeland in the west. The name, Havaiki, is echoed in the traditional name for Raiatea in the Society Islands (Havaiki), Savaii in Samoa and Hawaii.

Wind-swept Ka Lae at the southern point of Hawaii Island has been pointed to as the first landing place of the Marquesan migration; this has never been confirmed, but it makes sense that first landfall would take place somewhere on this huge southernmost island that is crowned by three mountains soaring to more than 10,000 ft. - a highly visible marker in the open ocean.  


The voyagers established themselves and thrived on Hawaii Island. As early as 1300 AD, an agricultural approach known by archaeologists as the “Kona Field System” began to take shape in the Kona district of the Hawaii Island's west side. This system was an engineering marvel of its time and continues to be an inspiration for sustainable agriculture in the 21st century.

By 1500, the Kona Field System was supporting a thriving population in the Kona area.

Covering a vast area from Kailua-Kona in the north to Honaunau in the south, the land was divided into long, narrow fields, running mauka-makai (from the mountain to the sea). These fields were delineated by rock walls (kuaiwi) that served as both plot and planting boundaries. Further divisions (lo‘i) perpendicular to the kuaiwi created smaller planting areas. In these terraced plots that stepped down the slope of Mauna Loa, plantings of sweet potato, paper mulberry, breadfruit, dryland taro, bananas and other crops were grown in elevation zones linked to each species’ moisture requirements.

Rainwater and underground water sources were channeled to provide sustenance to the crops, while not impeding the natural cycle of water flow to the sea so essential to the ecology of the island. The Kona farmers mulched their planting beds, timed their plantings, and selected their crops with a careful eye to the weather, soil type, and differences in variety.

At the time of the first recorded Western contact with these islands took place, Kona was the most densely populated area in Hawai‘i – conservatively estimated at around 25,000 – largely due to the phenomenal food production made possible by this agricultural system. 

 In the 700-some years between the Marquesan migration and the arrival of Captain Cook, Hawaiian society developed into a highly stratified system, with strictly maintained castes. Like medieval Europe and many other nations, each caste had its assigned tasks and responsibilities. 

 It was not until 1810 that the islands of Hawaii were united under a single monarch. Before then, there were a number of small kingdoms that divided the islands, and these were often at war with each other.

The social structure was enforced through the kapu system. Kapu, known in English as "taboo," meant sacred or prohibited.  Violators were swiftly punished by a variety of violent means.  Birth, death, faulty behavior, the building of a canoe, and many other activities were regulated by the kapu system, which permeated all aspects of ancient Hawaiian life.


 The conventional wisdom is that Capt. James Cook was the first European to “discover” Hawaii in 1778. However, there is significant evidence that more than one Spanish explorer arrived here first, most notably Gaetano in 1542.

 Cook's arrival in Hawaii, however, is the Western contact that opened the door to the cascade of events that proved to be disastrous for the native Hawaiians, the Kanaka Maoli.The estimated population of Hawaii Island at the time of Cook's arrival was 400,000 (the current population is 150,000). By 1848, due to exposure to cholera, measles and gonorhea, Hawaiians numbered less than 100,000.

 There is a popular story that Cook, when he arrived in Kealakekua Bay, was thought to be an incarnation of the god Lono, as he arrived during Makahiki,  Lono's season of peace, rest, and games. But this is a story promulgated by Western historians, and it is rather unlikely, as the Kanaka Maoli were far too rational to believe such a notion. There is no evidence that this "mistaken identity" was ever a factor in the first contact scenario. The friendly and ritualized greeting he was given when he first arrived during Makahiki would have been status quo for any dignified visitor arriving during that time of year.

But Makahiki ends in February, and Cook, who had departed but returned with a broken mast post-Makahiki, decided to make an issue over a supposedly stolen longboat by trying to take Kalaniopu'u, the highest cheif of the area, as a hostage. No longer afforded the protections of the Makahiki kapu on warfare, he was killed in the scuffle that broke out during his hostage-taking event.


Kamehameha I, as a young man of about twenty-five, was present at Kealakekua when Captain Cook's ships anchored there.  At the time, various kings had attempted to unite the entire island chain under one command.  Kamehameha proceeded to establish his rule of the entire island of Hawai‘i.

To be continued . . .