The evolution of social hierarchy in Leeward Kohala, island of Hawaiʻi : an evolutionary ecological approach

DiNapoli, Robert John
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[Honolulu] : [University of Hawaii at Manoa], [May 2014]
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Among the prehistoric island societies of Polynesia, those of the Hawaiian Islands have long been singled out as a locus for the evolution of complex hierarchical polities (e.g., Johnson and Earle 2000; Kirch 1984; Sahlins 1958; Service 1971). At the time of European contact in 1778, Hawaiian society was divided into two distinct social ranks: a small hereditary elite and a large class of commoners (Ii 1959; Kamakau 1991; Malo 1987). This stratified social organization was characterized by marked differences between commoners and elites, especially in terms of elite control over land and resources. This hierarchical social organization was further differentiated within the elite class, with several ranks of chiefs (ali'i), priests (kahuna), and land-managers (konohiki). Hawaiian social hierarchy was also mirrored in their tiered territorial land division (ahupua'a) system and ritual architecture (heiau). In this way, Hawaiʻi is distinct among ancient Polynesian societies (Kirch 2010; Hommon 2013). The existence of this hierarchical social organization begs an important evolutionary question: why would such a large proportion of a social group accept such a marked lower status position in society? For prehistoric Hawaiʻi, this specifically translates into questions surrounding what led to the evolution of multiple ranks of ali'i, the existence of the konohiki land-managers, and why such a large group of people, the maka ̔āinana (commoners), would accept their subordinate role in society. Research on Hawaiian social organization has tended to emphasize the coercive powers of chiefs in bringing about social change (e.g., Earle 1997; Hommon 2013; Kirch 2010b). However, while not often appreciated in Hawaiian archaeology, such social hierarchies always involve a complicated interplay of both coercion, competition, and cooperation (Boone 1992; Bourke 2011). Because the level of social hierarchy seen in prehistoric Hawaiʻi was unique in Polynesia, this leads us to ask--what environmental circumstances and evolutionary mechanisms led to the emergence of cooperative hierarchical groups in ancient Hawaiʻi? Exploring answers to this question is the topic of this thesis.
M.A. University of Hawaii at Manoa 2014.
Includes bibliographical references.
Polynesia, social hierarchies
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Theses for the degree of Master of Arts (University of Hawaii at Manoa). Anthropology.
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