Kupuna means elder, grandparent or ancestor. The islands to the northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands have been referred to as the Kupuna Islands. The Hawaiian chain is made up of volcanic islands.
Kilauea Volcano has been erupting since 1983. Mauna Loa is also an active volcano. Off the coast, to the southeast, Loʻihi is forming. (It is currently about 3,000-feet below sea level and is estimated to emerge above sea level in the next 10,000 to 100,000 years.)
Some of the other recent eruptions include Hualālai that last erupted in 1801; Haleakala that last erupted in about 1790 and Mauna Kea that last erupted about 4,000 years ago. (SOEST) (The first three volcanoes are considered ‘active’ and the latter three ‘dormant.’)
Hawaiʻi sits over a ‘hot spot,’ the Hawaiian hot spot.
It’s one hot spot, but lots of volcanoes have formed over it. The Islands are above a moving sea floor of the North Pacific Ocean (the Pacific Ocean is mostly floored by a single tectonic plate known as the “Pacific Plate.”)
The Pacific Plate is moving over the layer in the Earth known as the Asthenosphere. This movement takes it to the northwest. As the plate moves over a fixed spot deeper in the Earth where magma (molten lava) forms, a new volcano can punch through this plate and create an island.
As the plate moves away, the volcano stops erupting and a new one is formed in its place. With time, the volcanoes keep drifting westward and getting older relative to the one active volcano that is over the hot spot.
As they age, the crust that they sit on cools and subsides. This, combined with erosion of the islands, once active volcanism stops, leads to a shrinking of the islands with age and their eventual submergence below the ocean surface.
Each island is made up of at least one primary volcano, although many islands are composites of more than one. The Big Island, for instance, is constructed of 5 major volcanoes: Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Hualālai and Kohala (the island is still growing, but is basically about 400,000-years old.)
Maui is made up of two volcanoes, Haleʻākala and West Maui (about 1.32-million years ago.) Kahoʻolawe and Lānaʻi were each formed by a single volcano of their respective names.
Molokai was formed by East and West Molokai volcanoes (about 1.8-million years ago.) Oʻahu is also formed by two, Koʻolau and Waianae (about 3-million years ago.) Kauai and Niʻihau were formed by volcanoes of their respective Island names (about 5.1-million years ago.)
They are all part of the Hawaiian-Emperor Volcanic Chain. About 40-million years ago, the Pacific Plate changed direction from north to northwest – so the Emperor Seamounts run more north-south, the Hawaiian Ridge north-westerly.
Midway Island is 27.7-million years old; Meiji Seamount the northern part of the Emperor Seamount (near the end of the Aleutian chain) is about 80-million years old.
All of these are still youngsters, when you look at the perspective, say, of the dinosaurs. The Islands weren’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eyes when dinosaurs walked the Earth; sixty-five million years ago the last of the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct, after living on Earth for about 165-million years. (USGS)
If all of Earth time from the very beginning of the dinosaurs to today were compressed into 365 days (1 calendar year), the dinosaurs appeared January 1 and became extinct the third week of September.
Using this same time scale, the Earth would have formed approximately 18.5-years earlier. By comparison, people have been on earth only since December 31 (New Year’s eve.) (USGS)
When I was at DLNR, President George W Bush created the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument on June 15, 2006. Seeking a more appropriate Hawaiian name for the monument, suggestions for a name change were submitted.
We selected the name Papahanaumokuakea; it was submitted by Pua Kanahele. Pua and the First Lady, Laura Bush, attended the ceremony announcing the new name (March 2, 2007.)
The Kumulipo, the creation chant, tells of the history of how all life forms came and evolved from Papahanaumokuakea, beginning with the coral polyp – the building block for all life.
Papahanaumoku is a mother figure personified by the earth and Wakea is a father figure personified in the expansive sky; the two are honored and highly recognized ancestors of Native Hawaiian people.
Their union resulted in the creation, or birthing, of the entire Hawaiian archipelago. The naming of the monument is to honor and preserve these names, to strengthen Hawaii’s cultural foundation and to ground Hawaiians to an important part of their history.
Thus, the genealogy of Papahanaumokuakea tells the story of Native Hawaiians’ ancestral connection with the gods who created those coral polyps, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands or Kūpuna Islands, and everything else in the archipelago. (Lots of information here from the UH-Manoa SOEST, USGS and Papahanaumokuakea.)