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Early Hawaiians Overview

Biological Characteristics of Early Hawaiians based on Skeletal Remains

(referenced from Early Hawaiians – An Initial Study of Skeletal Remains from Mokapu, Oahu by Dr. Charles Snow)

What did the typical Hawaiian man and woman look like in ancient Hawaii? The average height for a male was about 5 feet 7 inches, while the average height for a female was 5 feet 7 inches, while the average height for a female was 5 feet 3 inches. They tended to have large heads and a high frequency of “rocker jaws” and shovel-shaped incisor/front teeth. These people were especially noted for their muscular bodies and narrow hips. As Snow notes, “The limb and hip bones showed an extraordinary muscular development, in women as well as men. Indeed, all of their bones bespeak of the vigorous and strenuous outdoor existence of these people. “Snow also noted that “they habitually kept their bent, both when in motion and when standing. Interestingly enough, their carved figurines are represented in this position.”


To make themselves more beautiful in ancient Hawaii, they didn’t perform nose reconstruction, liposuction or breast implants-they re-shaped their heads. The direct observation and measurement of Hawaiian skeletal remains was done by Dr. Snow in 1974 based on 1,171 individual burials. By studying the Hawaiian craniofacial morphometrics, demonstrated the cultural practice of artificial head deformation or shaping. 44% of both adult and children exhibited shaped skulls, there were slightly more cases found among the females. The head shaping process is well known in Samoa and parts of Western Polynesia.


How was the head-shaping done in ancient Hawaii? This custom involved shaping the infant’s head when the bones were still soft. One binding process involved two pieces of coconut shell (or gourd) lined with pulu fern fluff (or soft bark cloth known as Kapa). One was placed at the forehead, the other at the head, and bound to the baby’s head with Kapa cloth. They were removed when ever the child was bathed (once or twice a day), and the head was carefully massaged to keep up the circulation. According to Dr. Snow the time required for the bones to conform to this external pressure would take a year and a half to two years. It was considered very beautiful to have a sloping forehead and the back of the head being flat instead of having a curved protrusion.


What was the average lifespan of a man and woman in ancient Hawaii? The average age of death of early Hawaiians was about 30 years, males 32 years and females 29 years.


What kind of diseases if any, did the ancient Hawaiians suffer from? In general, the early Hawaiians enjoyed good health. But examination of the skeletal remains revealed that 96% of the male adults and 88% of the female adults suffered from osteoporosis (means porosities of the bone) mostly confined to the bones of the head and face. Such porosity was known in the remains of American imprisoned in the Korean War, who suffered from poor diets for up to 1-1/2 years. It is thought that the Hawaiians may have suffered dietary deficiencies especially during times of famine. For example, the Hawaiians had no other fruit other than the mountain apple and plantain as possible sources of vitamin C. The effects of these deficiencies have been noted in various stages of bone deterioration in Hawaiian jaws.


Cultural Corner Part Two (referenced from “Feathered Gods and Fishhooks”, an introduction to Hawaiian archaeology and prehistory by Dr. Patrick Kirch)


When and who discovered the Hawaiian Islands? The Hawaiian Islands were believed to be settled by Marquesan voyagers around 1700 years ago (based on carbon dating of the site near Waimanalo, Oahu). The Marquesas Islands are approximately 2100 miles away and why they voyaged to Hawaii no one knows. One thing for certain can be said about the Marquesans, they came prepared, bringing a variety of edible plants with them from their homeland to Hawaii. Hawaii at that time did not have any plants high enough in carbohydrates and proteins to sustain any kind of human population.


There are three main periods that define the Hawaiian cultural sequence-what is the first one? The first period is referred to as the Colonization period (A.D. 300-600). According to Dr. Kirch, expert on Hawaiian archaeology states, “It seems probable that the first colonists introduced most, if not all, of the crops upon which later Hawaiian agriculture depended. They made extensive use of the natural food resources of the Islands, especially native birds, fish, and shellfish. The first settlers probably numbered in the tens, and by the close of the Colonization Period the population may not have grown to more than several hundred or a thousands individuals.”


Is it true that there was a permanent settlement at Ke’e Beach at Ha’ena? Yes, archaeological work was done on permanent settlements founded in scattered locations throughout all of the major islands, including Ke’e Beach site at Ha’ena. It has been determined that this was the second period in Hawaiian prehistory (before European contact) known as the Developmental Period (A.D. 600-1100). It is when certain distinctive patterns of Hawaiian material culture and economic adaptation were established. These settlements are on windward, fertile and well-watered valleys. Based on the number of settlements, the population increases because there were no restrictions on agricultural land and natural resources which were still abundant. The overall population probably never exceeded 20,000 persons.


What was the largest population of Hawaiian people living on the Hawaiian Islands at one time? It has been estimated that during the third period, the Expansion Period (A.D. 1100-1650) the population was in excess of 200,000 individuals living on the Hawaiian Islands. The Expansion Period is considered the most significant period of cultural change in the entire sequence of Hawaiian prehistory. Over the ensuing five and a half centuries, the Hawaiian population would grow to several hundred thousand and expand into even the most arid and marginal regions of the islands. This ten fold increase in population was due to substantial technological, social and political changes. It was during this time that the first true fishponds and associated techniques of aquaculture were developed. The establishment of the ahupua’a as the central units of available land diminished, the necessity of defining territorial boundaries increased, and local conflicts over arable land probably precipitated inter-group warfare and competition between chiefly lines.


What is an ahupua’a? A land division, generally extending from the mountains to the sea, under the control of a chief.


How do the “experts” know that there were at least 200,000 individuals living on the Hawaiian Islands at one time, when Hawaiians didn’t have a written language, there were no records of births and deaths? In order to prove or disprove a large population it was important to examine the agricultural evidence, specifically “how was a large population supported?” The first direct archaeological evidence for large taro irrigation works and dry-land field systems comes from the Expansion period (1100-1650 A.D.). These irrigated fields were available for producing high yields of taro and other staple crops. The stone-faced pond fields and irrigation channels constructed in interior valley locals such as those in Hanalei, Kauai. All Polynesian societies were chiefdoms, organized as hierarchical pyramids, with the highest chiefs at the top. The Hawaiian chiefs were able to command the labor necessary to transport many tons of rocks and coral used in enclosing the walls. These ponds, which converted coastal flats into devices capable of yielding several hundred pounds of fish per acre annually, are a major symbol of the intensification of production that was the hallmark of this later Expansion Period in Hawaiian prehistory. The construction of massive temples occurred during this period. Oral traditions suggest that by the 17th century powerful chiefs were increasingly capable of integrating large regions or whole islands.


Wasn’t there a second major immigration of people to the Hawaiian Islands after the first Marquesian immigration, and when did this occur? During the expansion period (A.D. 1100-1650) based on some of the fishing gear discovered (and numerous oral traditions) reflects the arrival of immigrants from the Society Islands-how much these new arrivals influenced the course of Hawaiian cultural development can not be known. It is a controversial topic debated between various historians. Dr. Patrick Kirch believes that the influence of the Society Islanders on the Hawaiians was not great. He states, “Far more significant were the internal processes of change that had been building momentum for centuries.” He warns against the “migration mentality” in which cultural change is explained by migration, each new “wave” of immigrants introducing new cultural traits. While certain new fishhooks styles that appeared about the 13th century were still attributed to arrivals from the Society Islands, it was nonetheless evident that Hawaiian fishing gear has been continually changing in response to local conditions. Research on the settlement patterns, agricultural systems, temples and other material aspects of material culture (stone adzes and ornaments) likewise demonstrated that Hawaiian culture has continually changed and evolved and that it was inadequate to describe the Hawaiian culture sequence  in terms of a series of migrations. Rather, such phases or periods as might be defined would have to be described on the basis of local, internal processes of change.