The Menehune of Hawaii: Ancient race or fictional fairytale?

The Menehune are said to be an ancient race of small-statured people that lived in Hawaii before Polynesian invaders arrived. Many researchers relate the Menehune to ancient constructions discovered in the Hawaiian Islands. Others, however, have maintained that the Menehune traditions are post-European contact mythology and that no such race existed.

The Menhune. © Image Credit: butterfrog

The Menehune mythology dates back to the beginnings of Polynesian history. When the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii, they discovered dams, fish ponds, roads, and even temples built by the Menehune, who were skilled artisans. Some of these structures are still standing, and the extremely skilled craftsmanship can be seen.

According to tradition, each Menehune was a master of a certain profession and performed one distinct role with remarkable accuracy and ability. They would go in the dark to create something in one night, and if they did not succeed, the project would be abandoned.

Some researchers, such as folklorist Katharine Luomala, think that the Menehune were the original immigrants of Hawaii, descended from the Marquesas islanders who were thought to have colonized the Hawaiian Islands between 0 and 350 AD.

When the Tahitian invasion occurred in 1100 AD, the early settlers were conquered by the Tahitians, who referred to the population as’manahune’ (which means ‘lowly people’ or ‘low social position’ and does not relate to small size). They escaped to the mountains and were eventually dubbed ‘Menehune.’ This notion is supported by an 1820 census that classified 65 persons as Menehune.

According to Luomala, the Menehune are not referenced in pre-contact mythology, hence the term does not allude to an old race of people. However, this argument is weak because most historical tales were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

If Luomala and other researchers in her camp are correct, and there was no ancient race of skilled crafters who before the Polynesians, then there must be another explanation for the old advanced-design structures that predates any known population in Hawaii.

However, no alternate explanations exist, and most history texts continue to assert that the Polynesians were the first occupants of Hawaii 1,500 years ago. So, let us look at some of the old structures that have been connected to the Menehune in the region’s folklore.

Niumalu, Kauai’s Alekoko Fishpond Wall

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Alekoko, Kauai: Menehune Fishpond. © Image Credit:

The Alekoko Fishpond, also known as the Menehune Fishpond, is a prime example of ancient Hawaiian aquaculture. A 900-foot-long (274-meter-high) lava rock wall between the pond and the Hulei’a River was erected to build a dam across a stretch of the river in order to hold baby fish until they grew large enough to devour. The stones used were from Makaweli village, which is around 25 miles (40 kilometers) distant. It is regarded as an inexplicable technical feat and was included to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

According to Hawaiian folklore, the pond was created in one night by the Menehune, who established an assembly line from the fishpond location to Makaweli, passing stones one by one from beginning to finish.

Necker Island’s Ceremonial Site

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Heiau at Mokumanamana (Necker Island). © Image Credit:

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands include Necker Island. There are little traces of long-term human occupation. However, the island has 52 archaeological sites, including 33 ceremonial heiaus (basalt upright stones) said to be celestially orientated, as well as stone items similar to those seen in the major Hawaiian Islands.

The designs of the heiau vary very slightly, but they always include rectangular platforms, courts, and upright stones. One of these ceremonial locations is 18.6 meters by 8.2 meters in size. Eleven upright stones, thought to represent the original 19, remain standing.

Many anthropologists think the island was a religious and ritual location. Necker Island was the final known sanctuary for the Menehune, according to the tales and traditions of the inhabitants of Kauai, which is to the southeast.

After being forced from Kaua’i by the stronger Polynesians, the Menehune settled on Necker and created the many stone buildings there, according to legend.

Visits to the island are reported to have begun several hundred years after the major Hawaiian Islands were settled and concluded several hundred years before European contact.

Waimea, Kauai’s Kakaola Ditch

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Kikiaola facing stones. © Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kkaola is an ancient irrigation canal on the island of Kauai, near Waimea. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 16, 1984, as the Menehune Ditch. Hawaiians built several stone-lined ditches to irrigate ponds for producing taro (kalo), although dressed stone was rarely used to line ditches.

The 120 neatly cut basalt blocks that line around 200 feet of the outside wall of the Menehune Ditch elevate it to the status of “the apex of stone-faced ditches,” as archaeologist Wendell C. Bennett puts it. It is said to have been constructed by the Menehune.

No human skeleton remains of a physically diminutive race of people have ever been discovered on Kaua’I or any other Hawaiian island to date. While this does not rule out the existence of a race of diminutive people, it does call the legend’s veracity into doubt.

Nonetheless, there is convincing evidence, both archaeological and in various stories passed down through generations, indicating an ancient race of highly talented people lived on the Hawaiian islands long before the Polynesians arrived.