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Hawaiian temples tell tale of social change

Ruins preserve the outlines of a 17th-century Hawaiian temple on Maui.
Ruins preserve the outlines of a 17th-century Hawaiian temple on Maui.P.V. Kirch / UC-Berkeley
/ Source: Science

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space,” renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said, and the discovery of a sudden wave of temple building on Maui at the turn of the 17th century provides new insights into the will of the ruling class at a critical crossroads in ancient Hawaiian society.

Maui’s temple system emerged over a surprisingly short period of time — perhaps within one generation, around the year 1600, according to a new study. The authors suggest that this surge in temple building occurred along with an equally rapid shift to a more class-conscious society, in which elites who claimed the gods as their ancestors managed the temple rituals.

The scientists determined when the temples were built by measuring the age of corals found inside.

These findings appear in Friday's issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

Hawaii, before European contact
Polynesians first came to Hawaii in double-hulled canoes from the Marquesas Islands around A.D. 700, or possibly earlier. Agricultural chiefdoms emerged as the population grew from a few hundred to approximately 400,000 by the time Captain Cook arrived at the end of the 18th century.

Religion touched nearly every aspect of Hawaiian life, including birth, marriage, death, house construction, fishing, agriculture and war. Hawaiians participated in ritualized worship in their homes, agricultural temples and grand temples dedicated to the gods of war. A multilevel hierarchy of classes emerged within Hawaii’s religion-dominated chiefdoms, with professional priests and chiefs at the top.

At some point before contact with Europe, ancient Hawaiian society shifted away from chiefdoms where rulers and peasants were thought to be of the same blood line and land was held in families. In the “archaic states” that emerged next, class lines were drawn more clearly, and the king and high-ranked chiefs controlled the land. Rulers described themselves as descendants of gods, agriculture intensified, forced labor emerged and rulers implemented a tax system linked to temple rituals.

Hawaiian temples to the gods of agriculture and war — monumental platforms and terraces made of boulders composed of cooled lava — provide tangible archaeological evidence for this transition from chiefdoms to archaic states, according to study author Patrick Kirch from the University of California at Berkeley.

Clustered dates for temple construction
With no written historical record prior to European contact, determining the timing and speed of this fundamental shift in society has been difficult. Past attempts to calculate the rise of the Hawaiian temple system relied on carbon-dating techniques that yielded estimates with more than 200 years of uncertainty.

In their new study, Kirch and co-author Warren Sharp from the Berkeley Geochronology Center used a uranium-decay dating technique to generate high-precision age estimates of corals found in temple walls and presented at dedication ceremonies. The scientists dated corals from seven agricultural temples in a remote district on the island of Maui and from a territorial boundary temple on the island of Molokai.

The ages of the corals suggest that the temple system emerged rapidly between 1580 and 1640.

“We didn’t expect the dates to all come back in a tight range. The temples are not being gradually constructed and dedicated over several hundred years, but over 30 to 40 years — 60 years if you’re being cautious,” Kirch said.

Temples emerge as chiefdoms merge
The temple-building boom coincides with oral traditions describing the merger of two independent Maui chiefdoms under the control of a single leader named Pi’ilani.

The fact that two chiefdoms merged around the time of the temple-building boom strengthens the idea that the temples do, in fact, provide physical evidence for important shifts in ancient Hawaiian society.

Agricultural temples, for example, were the site of annual tribute-collection rituals that are associated with archaic states. As a part of religious ritual, high priests from the ruling class collected surplus pigs, sweet potatoes, feathers and other agricultural products and status objects from the commoners. This tribute supported the bureaucracy and the households of the chiefly classes.

‘Cauliflower coral’ clocks
The dates for the temple-building boom come from the ages of small branching corals called “cauliflower corals,” found in the temples. The exact symbolic value of temple corals to the Hawaiians — archived in the memories of oral historians — was probably lost when European diseases decimated the population at the end of the 18th century. The corals themselves were not objects of veneration, according to Kirch; rather, they may have served as symbolic offerings, like votive candles in a Catholic church. 


The researchers are confident that coral ages provide temple ages. Delicate surface structures on temple corals indicate that these corals were collected live and brought almost immediately to the temples. If the corals were collected dead from the beach, these tiny surface structures would be damaged or absent.

The kinds of corals found in the temple pull uranium from the seawater into their skeletons. Over time, the uranium inside coral skeletons naturally decays to lead in several steps, and one of the intermediate products is the element thorium.Sharp estimated the ages of temple corals by measuring the concentrations of thorium versus uranium present in the coral skeletons.

This temple-dating approach is an improvement over carbon-14 dating techniques that have been used to estimate the age of charcoal remains of pig bones and other organic materials found at the temples. Dating these charcoals requires scientists to take atmospheric carbon-14 fluctuations into account, which increases the uncertainty of temple construction dates considerably. In contrast, coral age estimates are not influenced by changes in the carbon-14 content of the atmosphere through time.

Sharp dated the outer tips of the corals to get as close as possible to the “death date” — the date someone harvested the coral from the ocean and brought it to a temple construction site or temple dedication ceremony.

The surprising swiftness of the transition in ancient Hawaiian society, revealed by the new temple construction dates, raises the possibility that similar transitions elsewhere in the world may have been equally abrupt, the authors say.