The Physical Basis of Ancient Hawaii

The ancient Hawaiians lived in a land where there was not a great need for extreme measures in taking care of themselves, because of the temperate climate. They also had little contact with the rest of the "civilized" world, and did not need the great trappings of society such as the Greeks had.

In ancient Hawaii, much like today, the weather and climate were very agreeable. Temperature varied with the altitude, rather than changing across one altitude. The climate ranged from sultry near the coastlines up to snow in the high reaches of the mountains.[1] For the most part, the area where the majority of Hawaiians lived was semi-tropical, with an even temperature that did not range much more than 27 degrees in the extreme.[2]

The pleasant climate and the large amount of rainfall in the areas where people lived allowed them to exist without employing extreme measures such as heavy clothes for winter and light clothes for summer, or having to harvest food for a cold winter.[3]

Hawaii was, and is, made up of coastline, forests as one goes deeper to the center of the island, and of course, the mountains and volcanoes. The volcanic soil of the area was not good for crowing crops such as corn or wheat, and Hawaiians consequently made do with many types of roots.[4] Valleys that were windward had the best rainfall for growing food, and thus were most employed for that purpose.

The ancient Hawaiians had houses and clothing, though nothing really as elaborate as the Greeks or the Chinese. They used a type of cloth called kapa, made from the inner bark of a plant, for clothing as well as for nets and traps.[5] The men generally wore loincloths made of the kapa cloth, and little else. The women wore the cloth in such a way that they were covered from below the breasts to about midthigh, and occasionally wore a wrap of cloth thrown loosely over the shoulder and covering the entire top of their torsos.[6 ] Occasionally cloaks and corresponding head-pieces were worn as a distinction of class, and the more elaborately decorated with designs of red and yellow feathers the cloak was, the higher rank the wearer was.7 The houses varied in size according to the rank of the owner,with some of the chiefs' houses being up to forty feet long, but the general make-up of the house was that of a rough frame made of wood, lashed together, thatched with a type of plant calledti. The houses had low sides and steep roofs to shed any rain that came. The houses also had low openings to serve as doors, without a covering on them.[8] The houses did have furniture such as storage containers to serve as seats, as well as many different kinds of wooden dishes for food and its preparation. They also had woven grass mats, elevated sleeping platforms covered with mats and rushes, and candles made from the nuts of the kukui tree.[9] Many of the houses served different functions, such as dwellings, storage houses, cooking houses, and canoe houses.[10]

The ancient Hawaiians, as stated before, did not have good soil for agricultural crops such as corn or wheat. However, they had many types of ground roots, such as sweet potatoes, yams, and their staple food, a tuber that was called taro. Taro could be used for a variety of things. It could be ground into a paste and added to water to form poi, it could be cooked by itself, it could be set aside and allowed to ferment for preservation, and it could be dried to form a convenient travel food called ao.[11] Mulberry and a plant called ti were also used for clothing and thatching of the roofs of the houses, respectively.[12] The sea also gave the Hawaiians the other main source of food. Fishing was very important in the Hawaiian culture, and there were many techniques used to catch seafood. The men caught fish using two kinds of fishhooks, single and two-piece, as well as using traps, nets, and nooses. The women gathered mollusks, sea urchins, and seaweed to supplement the food caught by the men.[13] Fish such as mullets and milkfish were also cultivated in ponds to make catching easier, and the seafood was cooked in pits in the ground that were filled with hot rocks that steamed when water was poured over them; the meat was generally steam-cooked this way.[14]

The land was divided into sections called moku, independant chiefdoms, that consisted of whole or large parts of the islands of Hawaii. The moku were then divided again into parts called ahupua'a, which were controlled by the chiefs and run by stewards who represented the chief. The ahupua'a had smaller sections that were controlled by individual households or groups of the common people, dispersed among the people at the discretion of the chief.[15]

The calendar was based on the rising of the Pleiades, and the beginning of the year was when the Pleiades appeared in the eastern sky, corresponding to our modern month of November.[16] The months were based on the moon's cycle, each month having either 29 or 30 days with an interlary month of about eleven days.[17] For four months beginning with Ikuwa, our October, services and games were held in honor of the god Lono, and for five months beginning with Kaelo, wars were fought with no wars allowed the following seven months.18 The new year came at the end of Welchu, and was called Makahiki, after the period of festivities that followed. The first day of Makahiki, taxes and gifts(hookupo) were gathered in honor of Lono. After the priests had prayed and sanctified the gifts, the people were allowed to engage in dancing, hula, sports, and feasting.[19]

One important ritual was the building of houses. Houses had to be prayed over and blessed by the priests in order to be fit to be built and lived in. Canoe building was also important, a huge event that had to be presided over by the priests, blessed and sanctified.The kahuna, the holy man, had to select a tree through interpretations of dreams and actions of birds. Offerings were made to the gods before the tree was cut down, and the gods were again prayed to just before the canoe was ready to be launched. The final sacrifice was performed, during which time the people had to be completely silent. If during the blessing any sound was made, or a person entered and broke the silence, then the canoe would have to be abandoned and redone, or it would surely fall apart in the midst of an important fishing or war expedition.[20] The sports enjoyed by the ancient Hawaiians involved the water as well as the land. A favorite sport was dancing at festivals, and another favorite, albeit dangerous, sport was boxing. Sometimes the boxing matches could end up killing one of the participants.[21] Foot races and a form of checkers called konane were also popular. Swimming and surfing were very popular. Often the people would slide down wooden sleds into the water as play, or would actually surf the waves. Shark killing was also a sport to the Hawaiians, who were very comfortable in the water.[22] A last important ritual had to do with the separate eating patterns of men and women. They ate apart because of a legend that the god Wakea had a desire to make his daughter his wife, and prohibited his first wife, Papa, from eating with him so that he could commit whatever acts he wanted with his daughter. However, Papa disagreed, and Wakea forbade her certain types of food as well as not eating with him. Thus, the ancient Hawaiians never ate with men and women together, and women were forbidden certain types of food because of this legend.[23]


Alexander, W.D. ]A Brief History of the Hawaiian People. New York: American Book Company, 1899.

Blackman, William Fremont. The Making of Hawaii. London: MacMilland Company, 1899

Castle, William R. Jr. Hawaii:Past and Present. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1917

Goodrich, Joseph King. The Coming Hawaii. Chicago: Plimpton Press, 1914

Handy, E.S. Ancient Hawaiian Civilization. Tokyo: Charles E Tuttle Company, Publishers, 1965

Kirch, Patrick Vinton. Feathered Gods and Fishhooks. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985


written by Jacqueline Barr