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For decades, the Aloha State has been tempting us to leave our worries behind and spend a few luxurious days or weeks enjoying its tropical climate, friendly people, glorious beaches, and Polynesian cuisine. Hawaii became the U.S.' 50th state in 1959, but these paradisiacal islands had a fascinating history and sophisticated culture long before Europeans and Americans arrived. Here are eight things you might not know about Hawaii.
Hawaii’s First Human Inhabitants May Have Arrived as Early as the 4th Century
There's debate over this, but some historical and carbon-dated evidence indicates that Hawaii’s first settlers sailed north from the Marquesas Islands sometime between A.D. 300 and 500.Known as Polynesians, these intrepid seafarers crossed 2,000 miles of open ocean without compasses or any other navigational aids apart from their ancestral knowledge of wayfinding. Wayfinding means relying on environmental clues such as celestial bodies, currents, winds, swell patterns, animal migrations, and cloud formations instead of navigational tools and equipment.
Later, Polynesians from the Society Islands, which lie just south of the Marquesas and include Tahiti, made the trek north and settled in the Hawaiian Islands, too. People from other Pacific archipelagos followed suit over the next several centuries.
Hawaii’s First Settlers Arrived Aboard Double-Hulled Canoes
Polynesians constructed sturdy canoes (known as wa'a kaulua) with two planked hulls connected by crossbeams. They used these canoes to cross the 2,000 miles of open ocean en route to Hawaii. If you visit Pacific islands today, you might see people racing smaller canoes (wa'a kaukahi), which were originally made from a single, hollowed-out tree trunk and a much smaller outrigger (hull). Pacific islanders used wa'a kaukahi canoes for fishing and traveling short distances.
Wa'a kaulua canoes were much larger — around 50 to 70 feet long with a central platform situated over the crossbeams. The narrow, V-shaped double hulls provided greater stability and more cargo space than the smaller canoes with an outrigger, and the 20-foot-wide platform provided living space. For ropes and sails, Polynesians twisted and wove together coconut husks and other plant fibers. The vessels traveled from 100 to 150 miles per day and carried anywhere from 30 to 100 people — plus all their food, supplies, livestock, and plants.
Polynesians Followed Bird Migrations to Hawaii
The Polynesians who voyaged vast distances across the Pacific were excellent navigators. In addition to relying on celestial bodies such as the moon, sun, and stars to find their way, Hawaii’s first settlers carefully observed birds. They noticed that seabirds flew long distances away from land in the morning to hunt for fish and then returned to shore in the evening. By noting the directions the birds flew later in the day, the sailors accurately surmised which direction land lay.
These early navigators also recognized that some land-based bird species, such as the Pacific golden plover, flew north in the spring and returned in the fall. This migration confirmed for these astute observers that a significant landmass or masses must exist somewhere farther north. When a group of Polynesians decided to follow the birds’ flight paths more than 1,500 years ago, it led them to Hawaii.
An Authentic Polynesian Canoe Replica Sailed From Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976
The Polynesian art of canoe building and navigation was almost lost forever until a group of artists, boat builders, historians, scientists, and native Hawaiians designed and built the canoe Hokule'a. Hokule'a (“Star of Gladness”) is a 62-foot authentic replica of the canoes the first Polynesians used to sail to Hawaii. Hokule'a was the first wa'a kaulua anyone had seen in more than 600 years.
In keeping with tradition, the group (who later became the Polynesian Voyaging Society) wanted to navigate by wayfinding as their Polynesian ancestors had. No one in Hawaii possessed the necessary knowledge, so they recruited Mau Piailug, a navigator from a small Micronesian island who had ancestral wayfinding skills. Under Pialug’s expert guidance, Hokule'a’s 12-member crew successfully sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976. A month later, Hokule'a made a return trip to Hawaii.. It has since sailed all over the world, and just celebrated the 44th anniversary of that maiden voyage. More than just a vessel, Hokule'a is credited with reviving interest in preserving native Hawaiian culture.
Hawaiian Culture Evolved in Isolation Until Captain James Cook’s 1778 Arrival
Once the first Polynesians arrived and established settlements in Hawaii, they often sailed back and forth between their new home and their previous ones in the Marquesas and Society Islands. They returned for reasons such as finding marriage partners, bringing back skilled workers, and obtaining plants, animals, and materials unavailable in the Hawaiian Islands.
New waves of inhabitants continued to arrive in Hawaii over the next few hundred years. However, contact with outside societies ended around the 12th century. The reasons for the end of relations aren’t entirely clear, but many speculate that Hawaiians’ population size, as well as their culture, governance, and agricultural activities, no longer relied on support or familial ties to their ancestors. For the next 500 years, Hawaiians developed a sophisticated system of social structure, religion, and governance. Although its roots are Polynesian, their culture developed nuances (such as new gods and hula dancing) unique to Hawaii.
Hawaii was (and still is) one of the world’s most isolated large populations, lying almost 4,000 miles from Japan to the west and more than 2,300 from California to the east. Its isolation ended when Captain James Cook, a famous British explorer, arrived in Kauai in 1778. Over time, European and American influences nearly supplanted many ancient Hawaiian customs.
The Hawaiian Language Was Completely Oral Until the 1820s
Hawaiians had no written version of their language until American missionaries arrived in the 1820s. For hundreds of years, Hawaiians communicated and preserved their ancestral knowledge via oral tradition — passing memorized information vocally from one generation to the next.
After listening to the Hawaiians’ speech patterns, American missionaries created a writing system using a 12-letter alphabet. Later, they added a 13th to accommodate the okina sound. The okina sound (the slight pause or “oh-oh” sound as in Hawaiʻi) is written using a single backward apostrophe. The missionaries’ objectives for creating a written language had a religious purpose — they wanted to teach Hawaiians how to read the Bible and other books they deemed necessary for converting the “heathen” islanders to Christianity.
When Cook arrived in Hawaii, hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians spoke their native language. Over time, however, that number dwindled, and the language was nearly lost. Fortunately, new efforts to preserve native Hawaiian culture include teaching language.
The Hula Was a Form of Flattery
You’ll find many stories and myths about who and which Hawaiian island created the hula, but there appears to be no definitive answer. The most common origins connect the hula to goddesses — like many polytheistic people, Hawaiians endowed their gods and goddesses with human attributes. Hula dancing is a complex art form that involves intricate hand gestures, chanting, footwork, and sometimes sitting. The movements and chants aren’t simply songs — they dramatize ancestral legends and convey messages.
Dancers often performed hula as part of religious ceremonies honoring a Hawaiian god or goddess, or as social entertainment — particularly for Hawaiian royalty. Chiefs and their entourages often visited villages within their domain, so villagers scrambled to house, feed, and flatter the visiting dignitaries. Hula dancing communicated fealty and praise, so the training to perform hula was vigorous.
Before Western contact, dancers performed hula with chants and traditional instruments such as drums made from gourds, bamboo sticks, conch shells, and stones. (Hawaiians invented the ukulele, but it was based on a Portuguese stringed instrument.) Other Western influences altered the traditional hula, and new variations formed. Missionaries and converted Hawaiians frowned on the dance, deeming it immoral, and hula fell in and out of favor over the next few hundred years. Today, events such as the Merrie Monarch Festival aim to preserve this ancient Hawaiian performing arts tradition.
The Aloha Spirit Eventually Became a Hawaii State Law
Most of us know the word aloha as a cheerful arrival or farewell greeting, but to Hawaiians (and Polynesians), the word conveys a more profound spiritual message. A few variations of aloha’s root meaning exist, but the overall message it conveys is peace, honesty, unity, humility, compassion, patience, and affection. Aloha can also mean sending and receiving positive energy and living in harmony with the world and everything in it.
Aloha is such an essential element in Hawaiian culture that the state Legislature created a state law in 1986 supporting it. You won’t end up in jail or be forced to pay a fine if you violate Hawaii’s Aloha Spirit law, but it is listed in the state Legislature’s statues as [§5-7.5]. According to the law, Aloha Spirit “was a working philosophy of native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawaii. 'Aloha' is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation. 'Aloha' means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return.” The law serves as a reminder to government officials and business leaders to treat those they serve — and visitors — with sincerity, warmth, and friendliness.