Archaeology & History
heiau stone wall

Archaeology & History

Life In Ancient Hawaii

ORIGINS: Where did Hawaiians come from?

Approximately 3000 years ago, Polynesians began exploring the numerous islands of the vast Pacific Ocean. These voyagers left Asia and brought with them plants and animals that allowed them to survive on islands where no humans had been before. It took over 1500 years for this wave of colonization to reach Hawai‘i, the northern frontier of Polynesia. The similarities in languages and customs between the island groups of Hawai‘i, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) formed what we now call the Polynesian triangle. Archaeological evidence shows that people probably arrived in Hawai‘i between 800 and 1000 A.D. Similarities between languages, fishhooks, ornaments, and other artifacts indicate that Hawaiians came from the Marquesas or another East Polynesian Island group. Oral histories speak of people sailing from Kahiki (usually understood to be Tahiti).

SUBSISTENCE: How did Hawaiians survive?

When they arrived here, Polynesian settlers found abundant fish, but few food plants. Fortunately they brought cuttings and seeds needed to start gardens with taro, bananas, breadfruit, coconut, and many other foods that we think of as native. Survival in Hawai‘i has always involved characteristically Polynesian cooperation between fishermen and farmers, but as time passed, Hawaiians developed specialized, intensive ways of getting food, using their keen observations of the natural environment and adapting it to ensure survival. Ocean fishing continued, but Hawaiians invented fishponds from which a ready supply could always be harvested. Gardening continued, but in some areas complexes of taro ponds and vast dryland field systems allowed much greater productivity. In time, the population grew and islands were divided into ahupua‘a, wedges of land that extended from the mountain to the reef, providing its inhabitants with the full range of environments and natural resources.

HOUSEHOLDS: Everyday life in old Hawai‘i

Archaeologists often focus their attention on house sites, which are usually close to the sea. Prior to Western influence, Hawaiians lived in clusters of structures (kauhale), rather than in a single house. Part of this was due to the ‘aikapu (the eating taboo), which prevented men and women from eating together. Thus a household cluster would have separate sleeping and eating quarters for men and women; there might also be other hale (houses) for menstruating women, for a shrine, for storage, and so on. Hawaiians also had multiple places to stay, depending on what they were doing. For example, a farmer had a shelter in the mauka fields for times when he had to work there, and fishermen often used caves to sleep in or repair nets when they were away from home. Small shelters along trails were used by people traveling from one place to another. There are many village sites in Hawai‘i, some of them quite large, but people also lived in smaller family groups scattered across the landscape.

MAKA‘AINANA AND ALI‘I: Ancient Hawaiian Society

By virtue of genealogy and leadership skills, some Hawaiians were ali‘i nui (high chiefs) who commanded several ranks of lower chiefs and maka‘ainana (commoners). Archaeologists study how these differences developed, and the degree to which class differences affected everyday life. For example, ali‘i compounds were large with specialized structures and restricted spaces, whereas rural commoners had less segregation and formal architecture. Heiau (temples), as special sacred spaces, were set apart from normal living areas, and frequently lack food remains or artifacts associated with households. The agricultural field systems of Kohala and Kona on Hawai‘i Island, with mile after mile of rectangular boundaries, remain as evidence of ruling chiefs who imposed their order on large areas.

What Archaeologists Do

What is archaeology?

Archaeology is the study of past cultures based upon physical evidence and supported by research of written records and oral history.

Why do archaeology?

In Hawai‘i today, many of the archaeological studies are done when land development is proposed. The State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD) reviews permit applications to see if archaeological sites are known or likely to be found on the land. If so, the landowner must search for and evaluate archaeological sites and mitigate any impacts on these sites. Landowners usually hire a professional archaeological contractor to do this work. These projects contribute to our knowledge of the past, but other archaeological projects are focused entirely on research and have nothing to do with development.

BEFORE THE FIELDWORK: Background research

Before going into the field, archaeologists conduct research in libraries and archives and study written histories, mo‘olelo (traditional histories), maps, photographs, and previous reportsfor the area. This research provides clues as to what kinds of sites may be expected in the project area.

FINDING THE SITES: Inventory survey

Once in the field, archaeologists systematically walk through the parcel to find all the visible archaeological sites, sometimes with the aid of old maps or aerial photographs that reveal site locations. They draw maps of the sites they find, take pictures, and write notes. These sites may include rock walls, terraces, caves, trails, and other features.


By carefully digging through layers of soil, archaeologists learn how an area was used in the past. For example, a layer of sea shells and animal bones (called a midden) indicates where people lived and ate; large amounts of broken stone may be an adze-making workshop. The deeper the artifacts, the older they are, and excavation is what adds the dimension of time to archaeology.

BACK TO THE LAB: Analyzing the finds

Studying the excavated materials provides a greater understanding of past environments, lifestyles, and technology. Analysis may be as simple as weighing and identifying midden to evaluate the diet and ecology of the inhabitants. Or it may involve complex microscopic analysis of artifacts and soil. Charcoal can be dated to establish a time frame for the use of a site.

PRESERVATION: The products of archaeology

Archaeological reports document and interpret the sites, evaluate their significance, and identify questions for future research. These reports are reviewed by the SHPD and added to their library as part of the public record. Archaeologists may then write articles for professional journals, where results can be shared and either refuted or supported; this advances and validates our understanding of the past. Significant archaeological sites are recommended for preservation as an important part of Hawai‘i’s unique cultural history. Preserved sites can be found in parks, resorts, and on private land.