This week: Hawaii and Polynesia

It is a matter of debate as to whether Captain James Cook was really the first European adventurer to set eyes on the Hawaiian archipelago. According to some historians, the 1778 arrival of the British seafarer’s ship, HMS Resolution, in the waters of the North Pacific island chain may have been preceded by a visit from the Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos in 1542 – more than 200 years earlier.

What is more clear-cut is the effect Cook’s arrival would have on the islands’ original inhabitants, who in an astonishing feat of navigation had themselves crossed the Pacific to reach these shores many centuries before. With colonisation rapidly taking hold, large numbers of immigrants from Europe and America introduced new diseases, including smallpox, measles and influenza, to which the locals had no resistance. This lead to a calamitous fall in the native Hawaiian population, from approximately 300,000 in the 1770s to fewer than 40,000 in the 1890s, barely a century later.

As we discover this week on The Past, the sudden influx of foreigners to Hawaii was also to have cultural ramifications. In particular, as Patrick Kirch and Clive Ruggles explain in the new issue of our sister magazine Current World Archaeology and on a fascinating edition of The PastCast, our unmissable new podcast, the arrival of the first group of Christian missionaries in 1820 was to spell the end for the islands’ fearsome old gods: Kū, Kanaloa, Kāne, and Lono.

Two hundred years on, archaeologists are only now beginning more fully to understand the many monuments and temple sites which pre-date the establishment of Christianity as the archipelago’s dominant religion, piecing together the evidence of early written accounts and using excavation and the techniques of archaeoastronomy to unlock the islanders’ extraordinary connection to the stars.

Elsewhere on The Past, we’ve been delving deeper into the Current World Archaeology archives to explore some of the other mysteries of Polynesia, the vast Pacific island region which stretches from Hawaii in the north down to New Zealand and across to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) further south. In CWA 20, we visited the British Museum’s 2006 Power & Taboo exhibition to learn more about Polynesia’s gods and the enormous influence they have had on the story of European modern art; in CWA 94, we travelled to Rapa Nui to map the famous moai, the monolithic stone-carved human figures which dot the island’s landscape; while in CWA 77, we took a closer look at A’a, the divine sculpture made on the island of Rurutu and presented to missionaries in 1821, which had such a central role in the British understanding of Polynesian culture.

Finally, if all the above whets your appetite for Pacific island life, please don’t forget to click on the link to our fiendish Friday quiz (from 21 May), which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of Polynesia. In the meantime, why not have a go at our previous quiz on Operation Barbarossa? Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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