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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology


The Hawaiian Islands, situated between latitudes 19° and 22°15' N., comprise the only inhabited Polynesian group north of the equator. These volcanic islands form the northern angle of the Polynesian triangle. The main group includes the following eight islands: Hawaii, Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, Kauai, and Niihau. Off Niihau are the rocky islets of Lehua and Kaula, and extending toward the northwest is a long range of uninhabited rocky islets consisting of Nihoa, Necker, French Frigate Shoal, Gardiner, Laysan, Lisiansky, Midway, and Ocean. Nihoa and Necker have archaeological remains. The large islands are well wooded and watered, and the soil and climate are favorable to the growth of introduced plants.

page 107

Native legends state that the island of Hawaii was discovered by Hawaiiloa who named the island after himself. He headed the first settlers, who have been termed Menehune. The Menehune had no cultivated food plants or domestic animals. They are credited with building many of the fishponds and religious structures termed heiaus, and a good deal of myth has been composed about them and their doings. They are associated mostly with Kauai. It is probable that, like the Manahune of the Society Islands, they were of Polynesian stock who left central Polynesia at an early stage in the development of Polynesian culture. They were followed, in about the twelfth century and later, by settlers from Tahiti who had a more advanced stage of culture. The later arrivals brought all the Polynesian cultivated food plants (except the plantain), the paper mulberry, and all three of the domestic animals. The Menehune were absorbed by the later arrivals, and the culture, which was developed on a central Polynesian pattern, was enriched by many local developments.

The European discoverer of the group was Captain James Cook in 1778, for the oft quoted Spanish discovery by Juan de Gaetano in 1555 has been conclusively disproved. Cook's description of the native culture is full and authoritative. Besides later British voyagers, the group was visited by Russian and French navigators, as shown in the literature list which follows, and they recorded useful source material.

Missionaries from New England commenced their labors in the islands in 1820, and among those who wrote about the people, the names of Bingham and Dibble may be mentioned. The best missionary account of the Hawaiians, however, was made by William Ellis, a member of the London Missionary Society, who paid a visit from Tahiti. The missionaries compiled an alphabet for the Hawaiian language and established schools.

Among native Hawaiian students, Malo, Kamakau, and Kepelino recorded interesting material about their people, but their work was influenced by the desire to fit Christian teaching into their accounts of mythology and native religion. Malo's manuscript, entitled "Hawaiian antiquities", translated by N. B. Emerson, and Kepelino's "Traditions of Hawaii", translated by Martha Beckwith, were both published by Bishop Museum. Kamakau's contributions consisted of a number of articles published in the Hawaiian language newspapers. These were collected and typed out by the Museum as more available. source material. They were translated by Martha Beckwith and Mary Pukui, and the material is at present in bound manuscript form.

Of other writers, the names which stand out prominently are Fornander, Thrum, Alexander, Westervelt, and Emerson. Fornander amassed a great quantity of material, but his weakness lay in accepting Christian affinities in the Hawaiian accounts as being old instead of recent. He thus propounded a Semitic origin for the Hawaiians and Polynesians. Thrum founded the Hawaiian Annual in 1875 and contributed many valuable articles to its pages. page 108He was particularly interested in religious stone structures and did much to locate them on the various islands. The contributions of the various local writers are enumerated in the literature list.

Among periodicals, the Missionary Herald, published in Boston, contained early impressions of the missionaries in Hawaii, the accounts commencing in volume 17, published in 1821. Interesting articles written by Hawaiians appeared in language newspapers such as Ke au okoa and Ka nupepa kuokoa. The articles of ethnological value have been translated by Mary Pukui, Assistant in Hawaiian Linguistics, and filed at the Museum for future study.The work of the Hawaiian Historical Society, founded by W. D. Alexander, J. S. Emerson, T. G. Thrum, and others is referred to on page 41.

A period of increased output in ethnological literature is associated with Bishop Museum. Studies on the Museum's collections by Brigham and Stokes and "Fornander's collection of Hawaiian antiquities and folk-lore" were published as Museum Memoirs. Since 1920, the Museum has published many studies on topical subjects in Hawaiian culture. Among the contributors may be mentioned the following: Beckwith (mythology and folklore), Cartwright (genealogies, history), Dickey (string figures), Emory (archaeology), Handy (therapeutics, agriculture), Judd (proverbs, language), Luquiens (art), Pukui (birth and translations), Roberts (music), Sullivan (physical characters), Te Rangi Hiroa (technology), and Wissler (physical characteristics).