Today most anthropologists will tell you that the original settlement of the Hawaiian Islands was by Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands around 300-500 AD. This group of early settlers is today believed to be where the legend of the Menehune originates. A second wave of settlement followed during the 9th and 10th centuries from Tahiti, radically changing the islands and the culture that existed there.
They came in their double-hulled canoes, some 3,500 miles south of the Big Island. Using the wind and paddle they navigated themselves in uncharted waters to the peaks of this foreign land. Arriving as early as 2,000 years ago, the Polynesians came in waves of migration bringing most everything with them they’d need to survive on the shores of Hawai’i. Banana and coconut trees, dogs, hogs, rats, and chickens came with them from thousands of miles away.
Their knowledge of the sea also provided ample seafood. Weaving, wood, and stone carving allowed them to grow crops and farm. Their population would flourish here, and by the time Europeans first made contact in 1778, their numbers were estimated at approximately 800,000 to one million. Once established, the Hawaiians had no further need to obtain supplies from their old homelands, and thus underwent centuries of isolation in what is still today the most isolated spot on the planet.
The Polynesians governed themselves by a set of rules, a kapu system with chiefs and ali’I (royalty). Their culture was strict and abundant in both mythology and lore. Their religious system was very deeply tied to nature, and there were hundreds upon thousands of gods in the system. Four main gods were especially important to the Hawaiians: Ku, Kane, Kanaloa, and Lono.
One of their most powerful deities, Pele, made her continuous presence known on the Big Island. Her home was, and still is, Kilauea’s Caldera, and her frequent eruptions are a constant reminder of her existence. She is a goddess of fire who changes form at will. A beautiful woman one minute a fireball the next, Pele is known for her fiery temper. Even today many residents hope to appease Madame Pele by placing offerings on the rim of her home. As recently as 2018, Pele made her temperament known by destroying hundreds of homes along the southeast shoreline.
The Polynesians were stewards of both land and sea, guardians of all that existed here. They were careful to never over-fish the reefs or streams and to never abuse the aina (land) which so graciously supported them. They skillfully diverted water into irrigation channels to flood their taro fields, so that their staple food of poi could be produced and eaten by generation upon generation. Today these canals still crisscross the island and taro still grows in beautiful valleys. Two of these valleys were some of the most prosperous in Hawai’I Pololu and Waipi’o, both on the northeastern Kohala coast of the Big Island. Waipi’o even today is still known for its taro fields.