Generally thought to have originated from the Marquesas Islands, evidence of early existence in the Hawaiian Islands indicates initial contact and settlement in about 1000 AD.
Early on, with the family unit being the socio-political structure, there was no need for a hierarchical or complex society. However, as the population increased and wants and needs increased in variety and complexity, the need for chiefly rule became apparent.
Eventually, a highly stratified society evolved consisting of the ali‘i (ruling class,) Kahuna (priestly and expert class of craftsmen, fishers and professionals) and Makaʻāinana (commoner class.)
At the time of European contact in 1778, Hawaiian society comprised four levels. People were born into specific social classes; social mobility was not unknown, but it was extremely rare. The Kapu System separated Hawaiian society into four groups of people:
- Aliʻi, the ruling class of chiefs and nobles considered to be of divine origin who ruled specific territories and who held their positions on the basis of family ties and leadership abilities;
- Kahuna, the priests (who conducted religious ceremonies at the heiau and elsewhere) and master craftsmen (experts in medicine, religion, technology, natural resource management and similar areas) who ranked near the top of the social scale
- Makaʻāinana, Commoners (by far, the largest group) those who lived on the land – primarily laborers, farmers, fishermen, and the like; they labored not only for themselves and their families, but to support the chiefs; and
- Kauwa (or Kauā), outcasts forced to lead lives generally segregated from the rest of Hawaiian society
The aliʻi attained high social rank in several ways: by heredity, by appointment to political office, by marriage or by right of conquest. The first was determined at birth, the others by the outcomes of war and political process.
Power and prestige, and thus class divisions, were defined in terms of mana. Although the gods were the full embodiment of this sacredness, the royalty possessed it to a high degree because of their close genealogical ties to those deities.
The kahuna ratified this relationship by conducting ceremonies of appeasement and dedication on behalf of the chiefs, which also provided ideological security for the commoners who believed the gods were the power behind natural forces.
Commoners possessed little mana and were therefore prohibited from entering any of the sacred places where nobles and gods communicated, such as the heiau in which the aristocrats honored their gods. Outcasts, with no mana, could interact with commoners but not approach the upper class.
With the stratified social system, it was important to retain the division between aliʻi and makaʻāinana. This was done through a physical separation, such as the Royal Centers that were restricted to only the aliʻi and kahuna.
Royal Centers were where the aliʻi resided; aliʻi often moved between several residences throughout the year. The Royal Centers were selected for their abundance of resources and recreation opportunities, with good surfing and canoe-landing sites being favored.
The Hawaiian court was mobile within the districts or kingdom the aliʻi controlled. A paramount’s attendants might consist of as many as 700 to 1000-followers made of kahuna and political advisors (including geologists, architects, seers, messengers, executioner, etc.); servants which included craftsmen, guards, stewards; relatives and numerous hangers-on (friends, lovers, etc.).
There was no regular schedule for movement between Royal Centers. In part, periodic moves served to ensure that district chiefs did not remain isolated, or unsupervised long enough to gather support for a revolt.
In addition to personal economic support, the king also required tribute and taxes by which to maintain and display his political power.
Structures associated with the Royal Centers include heiau (religious structures) and sacred areas, house sites for the aliʻi and the entourage of family and kahuna (priests), and activity areas for burial, bathing, games, recreation, and crafts.
Religion and politics were closely interwoven in Hawaiian culture. The Royal Centers reflect this interrelationship with residential sites, heiau and sacred sites present within a defined royal compound.
Puʻuhonua (places of refuge) were often associated with these Royal Centers, reflecting the strong association between puʻuhonua and sites occupied by the high-ranking aliʻi.
A ruling chief moved his court as desired, travelling along the coasts by canoe with his attendants and setting up temporary establishments at certain sites for purposes of business or pleasure.
On a voyage the aliʻi rode in the raised and sheltered platform in the middle of the canoe which was called the pola, while the paddle-men sat in the spaces fore and aft, their number showing the strength of the king’s following. (Lots of information here from several NPS documents.)