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Archaeologists Date Prehistoric Temples in Hawaii to establish origins of First Kingdom

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The prehistoric religious temples of Hawaii are being dated by researchers with the help of small sea creatures.

Indigenous temples of Hawaii, known as heiau, can be found across the islands. Dr. Patrick Kirch of the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues have been studying these temples to determine when exactly the native peoples first united under a single ruler, after generations of living under multiple smaller chiefdoms. Establishing a timeline will give historians and archaeologists a better understanding of the origins of Hawaii’s first kingdom. 

To do this the researchers first examined the temples, which consist of small shrines and the ruins of larger monuments, and then analyzed the contents found within, specifically on the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands, Maui.

A depiction of a royal heiau (Hawaiian temple) at Tiritatéa Bay (now Kealakekua Bay). Illustration circa 1816.

A depiction of a royal heiau (Hawaiian temple) at Tiritatéa Bay (now Kealakekua Bay). Illustration circa 1816. Public Domain

According to science news website Western Digs , Kirch says the temple sites have remained mostly untouched over time, noting “[Maui] is one of the few places in the Hawaiian islands where the archaeological landscape of an entire ancient district is still intact, not disturbed either by plantation agriculture or modern tourism or housing developments.” This preservation allowed the research team to access the various types of temples and locate the sea creatures they’re looking for: stony coral branches called Pocillopora meandrina, or Cauliflower coral.

Pocillopora meandrina coral in natural habitat, Hawaii.

Pocillopora meandrina coral in natural habitat, Hawaii. Wikimedia, ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Kirch explains that temple creation was an important part of ensuring political consolidation by the chiefs. Ancient rulers of Hawaii increased religious authority by building temples and shrines and bolstering the importance of both. This allowed them to “wield economic and political authority,” writes Western Digs.  It is thought that the placement of religious sites near agricultural land created a symbolic connection between the leaders and the gods who were believed responsible for the bounty of food. Due to this increased association, tributes of the harvest would be directed to the leaders more readily.

Hundreds of years ago, the coral were built into the walls of shrines and temples, and were also left as offerings on altars. "We do not know the exact ideology behind this, but there are hints in Hawaiian traditions that the corals may have represented the god Kane — the god of flowing waters, irrigation, and the taro plant — or possibly the god Lono, the god of dryland farming and the sweet potato," explains Kirch.

Hawaiian Sweet Potato God, possibly a depiction of Lono.

Hawaiian Sweet Potato God, possibly a depiction of Lono. Wikimedia, ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

A study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science by Kirch and colleagues reports that the team analyzed coral remains found at 26 different temples sites. Previous studies had radiocarbon dated the charcoal from the temples, and results suggested construction dated between the years 1400 and 1650. However, Kirch and team recently tested the coral from the sites to determine uranium levels, instead of radiocarbon dating. Observing the predictable decay rates of the uranium levels in the coral gives scientists a more precise dating system, with smaller margins for error.

Cauliflower coral (Pocillopora meandrina).

Cauliflower coral (Pocillopora meandrina). Public Domain

Based on the new findings from the coral found at the Maui Island temples, it is believed that a surge of religious construction in ancient Hawaii occurred within a relatively short period of time, beginning in 1550 A.D. and continuing until 1700 A.D. This determination corresponds with the historical understandings of the area. The study abstract offers that this dating matches closely with "the reigns of Maui rulers credited in Hawaiian traditions with establishing and strengthening the first island-wide polity, and underscores the importance of monumental ritual architecture in the emergence of archaic states in ancient Hawai'i."

Hawaiian deity figure, possibly the God of canoe carvers.

Hawaiian deity figure, possibly the God of canoe carvers. Public Domain

These new discoveries shed light on the ancient power structures of the island culture, and how that power came to be centralized. And even though the original temple structures are no more, thanks to the Cauliflower coral researchers now have a richer understanding of the potential motivations, practices, and everyday lives of the people who lived there.

Featured Image: One side of Puʻukohola Heiau, a Hawaiian temple used as a place of worship and sacrifice. Wikimedia, Bamse/GFDL

By Liz Leafloor

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