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The Mystery of Migration

What was Hawaii like before the Polynesians first discovered it?
Anyone who loves a mystery will be intrigued by the speculation about how plants and animals first came to Hawaii. Most people’s idea of an island paradise includes swaying palms, dense mysterious jungles ablaze with wildflowers, and luscious fruits just waiting to be plucked. In fact, for millions of years the Hawaiian chain consisted of raw and barren islands when no plants grew and no birds sang.

Why was the Hawaiian chain barren for millions of years, void of plants & animals? Hawaiian islands are geological orphans that spontaneously popped up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The islands, more than 2,000 miles from any continental landfall, were therefore isolated from the normal ecological spread of plants and animals. Even the most tenacious travelers of the flora and fauna kingdoms would be sorely tried in crossing the mighty Pacific.

How is it that over 90% of the original plants and animals (which includes insects) that did make it to Hawaii can be found no where else in the world (this is known as being endemic)? Those plants and animals that made it originally to Hawaii made it by pure chance and what they found was a totally foreign ecosystem. They had to adopt or perish. The survivors evolved quickly, and many plants and birds became so specialized that they not only limited to specific islands in the chain but to habitats that frequently encompassed a single isolated valley. It was as if after traveling so far, and finding a niche, they never budged again. Luckily, the soil of Hawaii was virgin rich, the competition from other plants or animals was nonexistent, and the climate was sufficiently varied and nearly perfect for most growing things.

So most of the plants and animals of Hawaii before being settled  by humans were endemic in that they can be found no where else on planet earth – I thought, evolution of new species of life took millions of years – how could this have happened so fast? The evolution of plants and animals on isolated islands was astonishly rapid. A tremendous change in environment, coupled with a limited gene pool, accelerated natural selection. For example, many plants lost their protective thorns and spines because there were no grazing animals or birds to destroy them. Many birds would nest on the ground because there were no land predators. Before settlement, Hawaii had no fruits, vegetables, coconut palms, edible land animals, conifers, mangroves, or banyans. Tropical flowers, wild and vibrant as we know them today, were relatively few. In a land where thousands of orchids now brighten every corner, there were only four native varieties, the least in any of the 50 states.

Is it true that Hawaii has the highest extinction rate of its plants and animals in the world today? Yes, today the indigenous plants and animals have the highest rate of extinction anywhere on earth. By the beginningof this century, native plants growing below 1,500 feet in elevation were almost completely extinct or totally replaced by introduced species. The land and its living things have been greatly transformed by humans and their agriculture. This inexorable process began when Hawaii was the domain of its original Polynesian settlers, and then greatly accelerated when the land was inundated by Western peoples.


Cultural Corner – Part One – Hokulea comes to Hanalei Bay

What is the Hokule’a? The Hokule’a (means Star of Gladness) is a performance-accurate replica of the ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe, it represents one of the greatest accomplishments of humankind…the peopling of Polynesia. Since 1976 she has traveled over 50,000 nautical miles throughout the Pacific and has become a dominant cultural symbol.

When did the Polynesians begin sailing these voyaging canoes? Perhaps as long as 30,000 years ago, people from Southeast Asia began to develop a maritime tradition, sailing their canoes over open water. One by one, island groups were settled – New Guinea, the Solomons, New Hebride and Fiji. By 1200 B.C. these voyagers had reached the western edge of Polynesia, and over the next 1000 years, Tonga and Samoa were settled. By the time of the birth of Christ, the Polynesian culture had blossomed. The Marquesas and the Society Islands were launching points for the last great over water thrusts to the far edges of Polynesia-Easter Island to the east, Hawaii to the north New Zealand to the south.

By 1200 A.D. the seafaring people had completed the settlement of a vast stretch of the globe nearly the size of the entire Western Hemisphere.

Next newsletter – Cultural Corner Part Two – will discuss the prehistory of Hawaii before European settlement based on Hawaiian archaeology.

Is it true that hundreds of years before western people had sailed out of sight of land that the seagoing people of Polynesia  had settled every habitable island in a sweep of ocean containing only two units of land for every thousand units of water? Yes.

How is it that the Polynesians were able to sail over the open ocean navigating thousands of miles without the use of modern instruments i.e. compass, GPS, radios, etc.? The voyagers developed a remarkable system of non-instrument navigation across great expanses of uncharted oceans. The navigator directed his canoe by observing the natural signs – the rising and setting of the stars, the winds and cloud patterns, the ocean currents and swells, and the flight pattern of birds. This unique Polynesian navigation system, which is now called Way finding, ranks with the most sophisticated achievements of ancient man.

How demanding is it to navigate these voyaging canoes sometimes over 2700 miles of open ocean? According to the modern crews of the Hokule’a the navigator does not sleep except for 5-10 minute “cat naps” he or she must be focused the entire trip keeping the canoe’s path in his mind and the longest open ocean trip to date was been 34 days (Hawaii to Tahiti).

The ancient voyaging canoes were completely made from plant materials, are the modern voyaging canoes made from these same plant materials? No, unfortunately there are not any large enough Koa trees left in the world to build the hulls of the canoes that the ancient Hawaiians were able to build. The hulls of the Hokule’a are a combination of wood and fiberglass. The sails are made from canvas instead of from Hala. According to Dennis Chun – crew member, it is difficult to fix the “pukas” or holes at the sea in the sails because you have to be able to weave the Lau Hala strands together.

Is it true that the Sealaska corporation owned by the Haida Tlingit and Tsimsian tribes of Southeast Alaska donated two Sitka spruce trees to build a traditional voyaging canoe? Yes, they donated two 200-foot tall trees, seven feet in diameter, over 400 years old. These trees were used to build the hulls of the newest of the voyaging canoes, named Hawai’iloa. At first, the plan was to build the canoe out of indigenous material of Hawaii in an effort to recover the ancient canoe building arts.

What does Hawai’iloa mean and when was its first modern voyage? According to one tradition, it is the name of the discover of Hawaii. The canoe made its first long voyage from February to May 1995, a 6000 mile journey from Hawaii to the islands of Tahiti, Mo’orea, Huahina, Ra’iatea, and Taha’a in the Society islands: Nukuuhiva in the Marquesas Islands; and back to Hawaii. The canoe was navigated without instruments.

(excerpt from Hawaii.edu on the internet)