Menehune: The Mythical ‘Little People’ of Hawaii

May 11, 2021

The Menehune: Historical Accounts of the Mythical ‘Little People’ of Hawaii

The mention of the name conjures up images of little people, tiny artisans fervently working through the night to complete their secretive task, before quietly slipping back into the seclusion of the forest before day breaks. This mythical clan of Hawaiian people are known as supernatural stone workers with a long-standing connection to the west side of the island of Kauai, Hawaii.

Historically, Hawaiians believed the Menehune Hawaiian people to be small humans. In fact, there was a clan of people on Kauai and another in the Ka’u area of the Big Island in the early 1800s that Hawaiians identified with an earlier migration. The highly respected R.S. Kuykendall, professor emeritus of history at the University of Hawaii, also concluded the Menehune were humans.

Ethnologist Bruce Cartwright sums the problem up with:

“the lack of any evidence of material culture in the Hawaiian Islands indicating a race of pre-Hawaiians, and the lack of ancient traditions relating to such a race other than references to the Menehune people, has been a puzzle.”

However, in 1951 the Bishop Museum bulletin, “ The Menehune of Polynesia,” described as the only survey about Menehune theories, concluded that the Hawaiian people were not real humans. This bulletin claimed Hawaiian culture was altered under the influence of European contact, and thus stone structures, whose history had been forgotten, were credited to the mythical Menehune.

This implies that Europeans were involved with the creation of the earliest Hawaiian people, and the published myths were of European construction. The bulletin describes the account of the building of the Waimea irrigation canal as a creative European reinterpretation from a bunch of disconnected anecdotes and beliefs that do not constitute history. The Bishop Bulletin finds 1885 to be the earliest mention of the Menehune, with other written references appearing around 1890 to 1900.

The Bishop bulletin describes mythical people of the Pacific, including the Menehune, who share common attributes. They are said to be short with physical features that Polynesians do not identify with. These “guardians of the forest” are said to live in the interior, in caves or primitive tent-shaped huts of sticks covered over with banana, fern, or other leaves, rather than the traditional plaited thatched Polynesian home.

Their sleeping mats and clothing were made from the leaves and fibers of the banana, fern, and ti plants ( Cordyline minalis ). They gathered roots in the forest and bananas were their favorite food.  The bulletin indicates they preceded the ancestors of the present native population and, “have almost entirely vanished since Europeans arrived, although a few remain.” And finally, various bands of woodland spirits share similarities with people who represent survivors of early residents.

Who Are The Survivors Of The Early Hawaiian People?

In the 1820s missionaries assisted the Hawaiians with committing their language to writing. By 1840 there were two weekly missionary edited newspapers in Honolulu with an extensive circulation. The Hawaiian chiefs of the time were described as men of good education, judgement, and intelligence.

At the same time, the Wilkes expedition noted the native population was vanishing at a drastic rate . . . particularly the chiefs, and that the ancient manners and customs had nearly disappeared.

David Malo and Samuel Kamakau, two of the first native Hawaiian historians, were students at a missionary school who gathered knowledge of the past from the oldest generations and the most informed members of their communities. The first native Hawaiian to publish a historic account was David Malo.

This publication’s timing in 1861 coincided with the birth of the Hawaiian language newspapers, produced entirely by native Hawaiians. It was their first opportunity to publish cultural knowledge. The Menehune Ditch in Waimea was first mentioned on September 26, 1861, in this manner, “in the sprays of Kikiaola, the ditch of the Melehuna [Menehune] will flow…”

The following month, S. K. Kawailiula, a native Hawaiian born in Waimea, Kauai, shared some history about the construction of the Menehune Ditch and the Alokoko Fishpond. But, the source article, written in the Hawaiian language, does not speak of supernatural beings , nor of the magical, superhuman powers that had been “accepted” and distorted for over one-hundred and sixty years. 

The early Hawaiian people or the Menehune are described as men who belong to a group of gods different than those of the Hawaiians. The translation of this original document into English identifies the beginning of this misconception, as the English translation immediately transposed them into a “supernatural race of people.” The European account published in 1923 implies the same, stating they were not gods, but merely super strong little humans.

Samuel Kamakau, described by Missionary Cannon as the best Hawaiian orator and one of the smartest natives on the islands, published a newspaper series called Ka Mo’olelo Hawaii in 1869-1870, intended to be a continuation of Malo’s earlier work.

Within the extensive works of Samuel Kamakau lies the answer to the above question. His volume, “ Works of the People of Old, ” details many of the skills and crafts of the ancient Hawaiian people, in many cases the only sources of information on old techniques. As these cultural aspects emerge, the ancient Hawaiians, whose lifestyle Kamakau describes in detail, have characteristics that are similar but more primitive than Polynesian family living , but yet the “same.” As he describes the customs of the earliest generations of Hawaiians, a culture “emerges” that aligns with what we know about the Menehune.

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