A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai'i

A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai'i

A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai'i

A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai'i

Synopsis

Tracing the origins of the Hawaiians and other Polynesians back to the shores of the South China Sea, archaeologist Patrick Vinton Kirch follows their voyages of discovery across the Pacific in this fascinating history of Hawaiian culture from about one thousand years ago. Combining more than four decades of his own research with Native Hawaiian oral traditions and the evidence of archaeology, Kirch puts a human face on the gradual rise to power of the Hawaiian god-kings, who by the late eighteenth century were locked in a series of wars for ultimate control of the entire archipelago.

This lively, accessible chronicle works back from Captain James Cook's encounter with the pristine kingdom in 1778, when the British explorers encountered an island civilization governed by rulers who could not be gazed upon by common people. Interweaving anecdotes from his own widespread travel and extensive archaeological investigations into the broader historical narrative, Kirch shows how the early Polynesian settlers of Hawai'i adapted to this new island landscape and created highly productive agricultural systems.

Excerpt

Hawai’i is the most isolated archipelago on Earth. It is astonishing that Polynesian explorers in double-hulled canoes—lashed together with coconut fiber and propelled by sails of woven mats—discovered and settled these islands roughly a thousand years ago. They came upon a verdant island chain with a subtropical climate, rich soils, and abundant natural resources. Nurtured by this salubrious environment, their descendants multiplied, founding an island civilization that remained unknown to the rest of the world. Independently of what was happening in China or Japan, in Mesoamerica, or in Europe, the Hawaiian people constructed their own unique society.

This island civilization in many respects mirrored early states that arose in other favorable zones in both the Old World and the New. From a small founding population, over the course of several centuries a hierarchical society emerged, supported by a robust agricultural economy. A distinct class of chiefs depended on and managed a vast population of farming and fishing commoners. An elaborate system of rules and obligations—the kapu system—governed the relationships between the chiefs and the people. At the pinnacle of society were the island rulers, ali’i akua (literally, “god-kings”), whose prerogatives included royal incest and human sacrifice. In these practices, the Hawaiian kings resembled the pharaohs of Egypt and the Inca of Peru. Yet Hawaiian culture arose entirely independently in this most remote, most isolated of all places on Earth. How and why did this happen?

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