Who were the first Hawaiians? This is a question that historians and archaeologists have batted around for a long time without being able to settle on a specific answer. What we do know is that a group of settlers came to the island from other Polynesian islands, bringing with them animals (especially pigs) and seed plants with which they intended to make a permanent colony. There may have been two waves of colonization, one from Polynesia and one specifically from Tahiti. It may have happened as early as 300 C.E. or as late as 500 years later; we just don’t know for sure.

The mythology and traditions of early Hawaii speak of a mysterious people called the menehune. Allegedly the menehune were a race of dwarves who were said to live in caves and deep valleys in Hawaii, and they were already there when the Tahitians (or whoever the colonists were) arrived in the Middle Ages. The menehune are said to have built various structures around the Hawaiian Islands, for example, the “fish pond” at Niumalu on the island of Kauai or a breakwater at Kahaluu Bay on the Big Island. These structures undoubtedly exist. It’s just not clear when they were built or by whom.

One of the most interesting sites associated with the menehune are the various stone shrines on Necker Island, which is an uninhabited island in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, now a national historic site. There are at least 33 shrines and some other artifacts on Necker. The legend goes that the menehune were chased out of the large islands upon the arrival of the Polynesian or Tahitian colonists, and what is now Necker Island was their last refuge. Archaeology cannot confirm this interpretation and there are no written records, so we don’t know what basis this legend might have in historical fact.

standing stones necker island

The “standing stones” on Necker Island, in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, are sometimes attributed to the menehune.

Could there have been a society that lived on the Hawaiian Islands before the arrival of the Polynesian or Tahitian colonists? Archaeologists and anthropologists say no; there’s no evidence of ancient settlements on the islands before the colonists got there. (But remember, they cannot tell us for sure even who these colonists were or when they got there–the stories and theories often conflict). The menehune legends could theoretically be squared with what we know about ancient Hawaii if you suggest that there were indeed two waves of colonization, perhaps a few hundred years apart, from different parts of the Pacific. If the Tahitians (or whoever) got to Hawaii in say, 800 C.E. and were surprised to find that somebody else was already there, the menehune legends might have been a convenient way to explain the presence of the descendants of a previous colonial expedition and whatever works they might have constructed. Or, maybe the survivors of the first colonization were already dead, but the fish ponds, breakwaters and shrines the new colonists encountered undoubtedly proved they weren’t the first ones to take up residence on Hawaii; again the menehune legends would be a good way to explain what had happened.

I am in favor of trying to read the histories of indigenous peoples on their own terms, as I explained in my article on the “dreamtime” concept in early Australian history. I think it’s premature to dismiss the menehune as pure mythology, especially when we’re talking about an early history as mysterious and ultimately unknowable as Hawaii’s is. Could the menehune have actually existed in some form? I think so, but we’ll probably never know for sure.

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