The Universe Tonight

Jul 4, 2009 6:00pm
'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, Don Romero

Exploring the Science of Ancient Hawai'i

By Don Romero,   'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai'i


Hawaiians were a "stone-age" society with no wheels or metals, two Western ideas that made a society modern and industrial. The Hawaiian society passed down information orally and has no writing to perpetuate their knowledge. When much of the native population died after contact, it was akin to the destruction of a central library. 

The words were Hawaiian words but they described much of the scientific knowledge that we know today. Because the knowledge was not written it was unknown outside the "family". When we looked at this bank of knowledge with modern eyes it is amazing how much science was known and was applied (engineered) by ancient Hawaiians.

Let's begin with the dawn of space and time, the Universe. The origin chant of the Hawaiians, the Kumulipo, contains several references to modern scientific theories and ideas. The 2000 line chant begins with Po, the darkness that is rich in content. Po slips into chaos, like a big bang and the Hawaiian universe is born. 

The chant describes the plants and animals that are "hanao", born, into the world. This process begins with the simplest celled animals and plants in the ocean and is followed by more complex organisms that crawl upon the land and finally end with a man. This chant predates Darwin by thousands of years.  If Darwin had sailed further north from the Galapagos and learned Hawaiian, he would have seen his Theory of Evolution has already been spoken.

Before arriving in Hawaii in 300AD, the Hawaiian forbearers, the Polynesians, were voyaging all over the Pacific Ocean in fantastically engineered double-hulled canoes.  The Polynesian technology that made this possible was coconut twine. This twine has two qualities that made it invaluable when constructing a canoe; it did not stretch when wet or shrink when dry.

Polynesians used astronomy, meteorology, physics (wave theory), zoology, horticulture, botany, and the scientific method when developing their voyaging skills. They were keen observers and were very good at making inferences and developing scientific theories and proving them as they applied theories to their travels throughout the Pacific, travels that took them to South America where they acquired the 'Uala, the sweet potato and to the Channel Islands of California where fishing and canoe artifacts have been found.

Hawaiians told time in spans, anahulu, and what was observed in those times. They observed 30 moon phases which were categorized in 3 spans, waxing, full, and waning . The day was divided into four spans of time based upon where the sun was, Kakahiaka (rising), Awakea, (overhead) Auinala (setting), and Ahiahi (after sunset). And two seasons of the year based upon the temperature and rainfall, Wet  (Ho'oilo), and Hot (Kau).

Finally, Hawaiians, through scientific observation, found a use for every plant they found or brought to the islands. They did not have a weed because every plant was put to some kind of use, as a medicine, a food, a utility to assist in fishing, building, sports, and the arts.

All of this information and more can be found at 'Imiloa. The museum's mission is to present scientific knowledge in context of the culture in which it is found. Maunakea is both a modern astronomical site and an important cultural site. The two cannot be separated and both must be respected for what they bring to our modern society. 

Speaker Biography

I was one of the "pioneer" guides on Maunakea in the late '70s (as listed in the Guide to Maunakea book) and presently volunteer as an Alaka'i at 'Imiloa. I have a BS in Physical Sciences (which includes Astronomy) and a MEd in Ed Admin. I was a founder of the now defunct Mauna Kea Astronomical Society. I am a retired Principal from the Department of Education. I have lived in Hawaii since 1970 and have been hanai to the Waipa family from Kalapana for most of that time, giving me some basic 
knowledge of Hawaiian language and Culture. A special focus of mine at 'Imiloa is to interpret Hawaiian Science as found in chants, the gardens, voyaging as [it applies] to scientific knowledge, technological advances, engineering achievements, and math. 

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