How did you first hear of the Menehune? Did you spot a “Menehune at Work” sign in one of Hawaii’s airports? Did you buy a bottle of Menehune drinking water or a bag of Menehune Madness Hawaiian potato chips? Or have you been regaled with tales about this legendary race of people, which many compare to Ireland’s Leprechauns or Iceland’s elves?
Menehune remain one of Hawaii’s enduring mysteries. Are they a mythical race of industrious people, small in stature, who live in Hawaii’s forests and mountains? In other words, are the Menehune stories Hawaiians’ version of fairy tales? Or were the Menehune a race of real people who lived in Hawaii before the Polynesians arrived? In this article, we’ll lay out the stories, the research and the evidence we’ve come across—and then you can decide for yourself.
First, let’s start with some magical stories that surround the Menehune.
The Mysterious and Awe-Inspiring Work of the Menehune
When you’re looking to understand the Menehune, the best place to start is with the structures they’ve been credited with building, which are the main evidence for their existence.
One of their most well-known accomplishments is the intricate and complex Kikiaola ditch on Kauai, which is also known as the “Menehune Ditch.” As the story goes, Ola, the son of Chief Kualunuipaukumokumoku, paid the Menehune one shrimp per Menehune to build the ditch in a single night. And here’s what makes this particular structure so impressive: It required moving stones from a quarry seven miles away. Additionally, archaeologists can’t help but agree: The construction technique is intricate—unlike anything else you’ll see in the Hawaiian islands.
Menehune are also credited with building Kauai’s Alekoko Fishpond in a single night. Creating the fishpond required the construction of a lava rock wall that’s over 900 feet long and five feet wide, using stones from a village nearly 25 miles away. This feat of engineering made it on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
By the way, if you’re noticing a theme here—that these two stories both come from Kauai—you’re not alone. After studying accounts of the Menehune, journalist Jan TenBruggencate noted that Kauai accounts of the Menehune were more likely to depict the race as supernatural. In contrast, Oahu accounts tend to refer to Menehune as human beings who were simply skilled craftsman.
That being said, the final legend we’ll share comes from Necker Island, one of the Northwestern Hawaiian islands that doesn’t show much evidence of long-term inhabitation by humans. However, Necker Island has its own version of Stonehenge, with 52 archaeological sites and 33 ceremonial heiauv which include upright stones that are believed to have been arranged to line up with particular celestial bodies. According to legends from Kauai, these stones were placed by Menehune after they were chased off the island.
To this day, no one is sure who built these structures. However, it’s worth noting that the archaeological evidence for Menehune is thin: No skeletal remains of a physically much smaller people have been found on any of the Hawaiian islands.
That being said, there are still several theories floating around as to who these extraordinary people might have been. We’ll share a few with you in this next section.
Who Were the Menehune, Really?
When it comes to a race of people who feature large in mythical stories, reliable information can be tough to come by.
Legends describe the Menehune as a race of people who were only three feet tall. They lived in the forests and mountains of Hawaii, and they possessed great skills of craftsmanship. They only worked on projects that particularly interested them, and they would only work at night. If they were interrupted in the middle of a project, they would refuse to finish it. They primarily lived on bananas, poi, small fish and shrimp. Some Menehune didn’t speak, while others had voices that were described like the low growl of a dog. Other stories reported that their “boisterous” talk and laughter was so loud that it could be heard from Kauai all the way to Oahu.
In thanks primarily to two writers—journalist Jan TenBruggencate, author of Menehune Mystery and anthropologist and folklorist Katharine Luomala, author of The Menehune of Polynesia and Other Mythical Little People of Oceania—we also are now privy to other perspectives on how the idea of the Menehune first came about.
First of all, it’s possible that the legends of the Menehune don’t come from ancient Hawaiian tradition, as some have believed in the past. In fact, the Menehune may be a mythology that was entirely invented after Europeans arrived in Hawaii. For example, Jan TenBruggencate notes that the term “Menehune” (and other similar words) didn’t appear in Hawaiian-language newspapers until 1861. Then, in the 50 years that followed, the Menehune evolved into the kind of cartoon-character version we most often see today on signs and on Hawaiian-themed goods.
That being said, when the original Polynesians arrived, they reportedly found dams, fish ponds and roads already built. These were attributed to the Menehune, who may have been a race of people who arrived from the Marquesas Islands before the Polynesian arrivals.
Katherine Luomala is one of the supporters of this idea, arguing that these so-called mythical people were actually descendants of Marquesas islanders. When the Tahitians arrived, the earlier settlers fled to the mountains, which is where the legend was born. Proponents of this theory argue that “manahune” meant someone of low social status (not height), and note, as evidence, that an 1820 census lists 65 people as “Menehune,” suggesting that there was nothing truly mythological about this race of people.
Menehune: A Uniquely Hawaiian Myth
Now that you’ve read the stories, the evidence and the theories, which camp do you fall into? Were the Menehune a mythical race who accomplished magnificent feats in a single evening, all for the payment of a single shrimp? Or were they a real race of people who left Hawaii when the Tahitians arrived, taking their master craftsmanship with them?
Whether you believe the former, the latter or a little bit of both, there’s one thing for sure: The Menehune are woven tightly into the cloth of current Hawaiian culture. And no matter who the Menehune were, they left several archaeological wonders for us to ponder—and enjoy.
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