Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ancient Hawaiian Society - Isolated Feudalism

I found this interestingshort article at As the site allows for the reproduction of articles by blogs and other websites, I am going to go ahead and reprint it here. The author of the article is Dave Sader.
Ancient Hawaiian Society - Isolated Feudalism
by Dave Sader

Polynesian Caste system

Tribal Polynesian culture and society evolved into rigid castes in ancient Hawaii. Ancient Hawaiians were born into specific social classes and did not have the ability to move into another, except in the case of falling into outcast status. Each Hawaiian class had assigned duties and responsibilities to the greater Hawaiian society. These Polynesian Hawaiian classes were more severe then the tribal Polynesians where some movement was allowed, such as a commoner becoming a priest.

The Ancient Hawaiian Classes (in order of social status)

Alii, the Hawaiian royal class.This class consisted of the high and lesser chiefs of the realms. They governed with divine power called mana and had the right to wear certain feathers and protective capes. The Alii's were a driving force behind the frequent warring throughout the Hawaiian islands as they contrived to extend their domains. Commoners were often required to prostrate themselves in their presents. They possessed the power to put a Kapu, a ban on someone or something.

Kahuna, the Hawaiian priestly class.

This class consisted of the priesthood that tended the temples and conducted religious activities in the villages. Kahuna's possessed the ability (along with Aliis) to place a kapu on places and things, forbidding commoners. Scientists and exceptional navigators also were deemed to have kahuna status. Akamia advisors would be considered Kahunas. A kahuna nui was a high priest.

Maka'ainana, the Hawaiian commoner class.

This class consisted of the farmers, fishermen, bird catchers, weapons makers, craftsmen and their families. In a feudal Polynesian society, they were charged with laboring for the overall economy. Ancient Hawaiian economy became complex over time. People began to specialize in specific skills. Generations of Hawaiian families became committed to certain careers: roof thatchers, house builders (tiki huts!), stone grinders, weapons makers, bird catchers who would make the feather cloaks of the ali'i, and canoe builders. Soon, entire islands began to specialize in certain skilled trades. Oahu became the chief kapa (tapa bark cloth) manufacturer. Maui became the chief canoe manufacturer. The island of ancient Hawaii exchanged bales of dried fish and had contact throughout Polynesia.

Kauwa, the Hawaiian outcast or slave class.

This class consisted primarily of people who were considered to be of low birth and thus born without mana. They were not allowed to move up in the caste system or improve their conditions. The mingling of members from other caste groups with the Kauwa was strictly prohibited by kapu. This caste also included prisoners captured in times of war. These prisoners forced to serve the ali'i or were more often used for sacrifice at the luakini heiau. Crushing of bones with club weapons or strangulation was common.

The ancient Hawaiian caste fueled a feudal system relative to feudal systems found in Europe circa A.D. 1000. Ali'i gave lesser ali'i parcels of land who would in turn govern over them. The lesser ali'i divided the land into plots to be farmed and cultivated by maka'ainana families. Harvests were returned to the lesser ali'i, each taking a portion before being sent to the supreme ali'i.

Polynesian Feudalism

Feudalism is generally the system in place before evolvement into a nation state. Ancient Hawaii has often been called tribal. This is probably a misnomer. The state of Hawaiian organization when Capt. James Cook arrived had developed past tribalism, imagine a system of slaves (kauwa), peasants (maka'ainana), knights (kao warriors), priests (kahuna), Dukes (lesser alii) and kings (alii) in a Polynesian setting. However, the term "Polynesian tribal Hawaii" could be applied to an earlier time before chaste systems and economic specialization had occurred. I would consider this to be the state of affairs during the time of Polynesian expansion and settlement in Hawaii. Think of the ancient "barbarian" tribes of Europe before the fall of the Ancient Roman empire. (Northern Europe c.200 B.c. to c.900 A.D.).

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