The Menehune of Hawaii – Ancient Race or Fictional Fairytale?
In Hawaiian mythology, the Menehune are said to be an ancient race of people small in stature, who lived in Hawaii before settlers arrived from Polynesia. Many scholars attribute ancient structures found on the Hawaiian Islands to the Menehune. However, others have argued that the legends of the Menehune are a post-European contact mythology and that no such race existed.
The mythology of the Menehune is as old as the beginnings of Polynesian history. When the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii, they found dams, fish-ponds, roads, and even temples, all said to have been built by the Menehune who were superb craftspeople. Some of these structures still exist, and the highly-skilled craftsmanship is evident. According to legend, each Menehune was a master of a certain craft and had one special function they accomplished with great precision and expertise. They would set out at dusk to build something in one night, and if this was not achieved, it would be abandoned.
Some scholars, such as folklorist Katharine Luomala, theorize that the Menehune were the first settlers of Hawaii, descendants of the Marquesas islanders who were believed to have first occupied the Hawaiian Islands from around 0 to 350 AD. When the Tahitian invasion occurred in about 1100 AD, the first settlers were subdued by the Tahitians, who referred to the inhabitants as ‘manahune’ (which means ‘lowly people’ or ‘low social status’ and not diminutive in stature). They fled to the mountains and later came to be called ‘Menehune’. Proponents of this theory point to an 1820 census which listed 65 people as Menehune.
Luomala claims that the Menehune are not mentioned in pre-contact mythology and therefore the name does not refer to an ancient race of people. However, this argument holds little weight as most accounts of the past were passed down through word-of-mouth from one generation to the next.
If Luomala, and other scholars in her camp, is correct, and there was no ancient race of skilled craftspeople that predated the Polynesians, then there must be an alternative explanation for the ancient constructions of advanced design, which predated any known population in Hawaii. However, no alternative explanations exist and most history books still maintain that the Polynesians were the first inhabitants of Hawaii, some 1,500 years ago. So let’s examine some of the ancient constructions that have been attributed to the Menehune in the mythology of the region.
Alekoko Fishpond Wall at Niumalu, Kauaʻi
Alekoko, Kauai: Menehune Fishpond. Photo source.
The Alekoko Fishpond, sometimes called the Menehune Fishpond, is one of the finest examples of ancient Hawaiian aquaculture. A lava rock wall between the pond and the Hulei’a River, which is 900 feet (274 m) long and 5 feet (1.5 m) high, was built to create a dam across a portion of the river in order to trap young fish until they grew large enough to consume. The stones that were used come from Makaweli village, some 25 miles (40 km) away. It is considered to be an unexplained engineering achievement and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Hawaiian legend states that the pond was built in one night by the Menehune, who formed an assembly line from the fishpond location to Makaweli, passing stones one-by-one from start to end point.
The Ceremonial Site of Necker Island
Heiau at Mokumanamana (Necker Island). Photo source.
Necker Island is part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Few signs of long-term human habitation have been found. However, the island contains 52 archaeological site with 33 ceremonial heiau (basalt upright stones), believed to be celestially oriented, and stone artifacts much like those found in the main Hawaiian Islands. The heiau vary only slightly in design, but generally feature rectangular platforms, courts and upright stones. One of the largest of these ceremonial sites measures 18.6 meters by 8.2 meters. Eleven upright stones, of what are believed to be the original 19, are still standing.
Many anthropologists believe that the island was a ceremonial and religious site. According to the myths and legends of the people of Kauai, which lies to the southeast, Necker Island was the last known refuge for the Menehune. According to the legend, the Menehune settled on Necker after being chased off Kaua'i by the stronger Polynesians and subsequently built the various stone structures there. Visits to the island are said to have started a few hundred years after the main Hawaiian Islands were inhabited, and ended a few hundred years before European contact.
The Kīkīaola Ditch at Waimea, Kauaʻi
Kikiaola facing stones. Photo source.
Kīkīaola is a historic irrigation ditch located near Waimea on the island of Kauai. Also known as the Menehune Ditch, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 16, 1984. Hawaiians built many stone-lined ditches to irrigate ponds for growing taro (kalo), but very rarely employed dressed stone to line ditches. The 120 finely cut basalt blocks that line about 200 feet of the outer wall of the Menehune Ditch make it not just exceptional, but "the acme of stone-faced ditches" in the words of archaeologist Wendell C. Bennett. It is purported to have been built by the Menehune.
To date, no human skeletal remains of a physically small race of people have ever been found on Kaua’I or on any other Hawaiian islands. While this does not disprove that a race of small people existed, it does draw the truth behind the legend into question. Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence, both archaeological and in the numerous legends passed down over generations, that suggests that there was indeed an ancient race of highly skilled people who inhabited the Hawaiian islands long before the Polynesians arrived.
Featured image: The Menhune. Credit: butterfrog