In Hawaiian mythology, the Menehune are said to be an ancient race of people small in stature and of very dark skin, who lived in Hawaii before the first settlers arrived from Polynesia.
When the first Polynesian arrived to the Hawaiian shores they found monumental structures –fish ponds, heiau (temples), and dams.
Some scholars have attributed these ancient structures to the Menehune, while others have argued that the legends of the Menehune are a post-European contact mythology and that no such race ever existed. Nonetheless, recent evidence has come to sustain the theory that a small hominid raced living in the Polynesian Islands at the time of the first migration of Polynesian settlers towards Hawaii, may be the true origin of the Menehune myth (more on this below).
One of the most interesting sites associated with the menehune are the various stone shrines on Necker Island, which is an uninhabited island in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, now a national historic site. There are at least 33 shrines and some other artifacts on Necker.
It is said, that in times before the colonists, the menehune lived in caves up in the valleys of all the islands. They were superb craftspeople. Each individual was a master of a certain craft and had one special function he/she would accomplish with great precision and expertise. Much as other supernatural beings (brownies, goblins, etc), it has been said that the Menehune preferred to go out to work after dusk, and to complete the planned building in one night, for if this was not achieved, it would be abandoned.
Legend goes, that the menehune were chased out of the large islands upon the arrival of the Polynesian colonists, and Necker Island was their last refuge. However, other tales speak of how menehune men were attracted to the newly arrived Hawaiian women, and how intermarriage frequently occurred, always to the disapproval of the menehune chiefs. Legends also tell of the massive migration of the menehune from the big islands because of this social intercourse.
However, the crucial point is to know if there is enough evidence to prove that an earlier society lived on the Hawaiian Islands before the arrival of the Polynesian colonists. Archaeologists and anthropologists say no. According to most scholars, the menehune legends only reflect what we know about ancient Hawaii –that there were two waves of colonization, few hundred years apart, from different parts of the Pacific— rather than proving that an ancient race lived there previous to the arrival of the first colonists.
The earlier artifacts found in the Hawaiian Islands have been dated to 300 AD, marking the date of the first colonization wave. If the second wave of colonist arrived to Hawaii around 800 AD for sure they must have been surprised to find that somebody else had been already there. The menehune legends might have been a convenient way to explain the presence of the descendants of a previous colonial expedition and whatever works they might have constructed. Furthermore, in those islands where the survivors of the first colonization had already died, these legends were a way to explain the fish ponds, breakwaters and shrines the new colonists encountered, which undoubtedly proved they weren’t the first ones to take up residence on Hawaii.
Most interesting, legends about little people are common to many Polynesian cultures. This indicates that the origin of such tales preceded the colonization of Hawaii, and that it was the tales that traveled with the colonist, and not the colonist who started the tales once in Hawaii. This development has become paradigm, as recent evidence has given strength to the legend of the menehune ancient race, by changing its place of origin.
On the island of Flores in Indonesia, from where many of the first Hawaiian colonist came, there is paleontological evidence for Homo floriensis, a small-bodied hominin proportionately equivalent to a child of the current era. This evidence indicates that these hominins coexisted with Homo sapiens for some millennia on the island of Flores. The extensive mythology of the Hawaiian Menehune may have its origin traced to this early coexistence on the island of Flores. Particularly, since hominins such as Homo floriensis (a sub-species of Homo sapiens) may have undergone endemic dwarfism owing to their formative heritage on isolated island locations.
-Dixon, P. (2008). The Hawaiian Menehune in Myth and Paleontology. Human evolution, 23(1-2), 11-15.
-Craig, R. D. (2004). Handbook of Polynesian mythology. ABC-Cio.