Mānoa Heritage Center




According to oral tradition, Menehune are said to have built Kūkaʻōʻō Heiau. In fact, upper Mānoa Valley, along with portions of neighboring Nuʻuanu Valley were said to be Menehune strongholds. On the side of the hill, just across Mānoa Road, on the site of the former Castle home, the Menehune were said to have built a fort called Ulumalu.  

Kūkaʻōʻō Heiau was their temple and is supposedly one of the only heiau they built for their own use. In a 1930’s interview with Maka Woolsey, a lifetime valley resident, she states that a Menehune wall began at Kūkaʻōʻō and extended for miles across the valley.

Many sites in the Hawaiian islands are attributed to the Menehune. Most of these sites involve stonework and include walls, heiau, and fishponds. There are many legends concerning the Menehune, but who or what they were still remains a mystery. Several stories of their origin are found within the Hawaiian oral tradition. The following are brief encapsulations of some of the stories:

1. Menehune are beings from the floating island Kuaihelani, an island with three strata that floats mysteriously through the sky. At one time, the island floated close to Kauaʻi and the Menehune disembarked from Kuaihelani at Peleiholani along with another group of people/beings called the Mu. The Menehune traveled to Laau. Under the supervision of their overseer, Papaenaena, the Menehune built many things and then returned to Kuaihelani.

2. A sorcerer, Kahano-a-Newa, stretched out his hand to the farthest bounds of Kahiki and the Menehune crossed over and came to live in Kailua, Pauoa, and Puowaina. They built six heiau on Oʻahu: Kaheiki, Mauoki, Ulupo, Kapukapuakea (made of wood), Puʻuomahuka and Kūkaʻōʻō.

3. A chief called Pāʻao comes from Samoa to Hawaiʻi via Tahiti and brings followers, the Manahuna, or the Manahunanuku. In a similar story, the navigator Hawaiiloa discovers the Hawaiian Islands and returns to his homeland bringing the Menehune as part of his entourage.

4. In the Kumuhonua legend, a story with marked Biblical overtones and probably of post-contact origin, the Menehune are descendants of the first man (who has a wife made from one of his ribs), Kumuhonua.

5. In another legend, a vast continent exists in the Pacific and after a great flood, the magician Nu’u saves some of its inhabitants: The “dwarfish” Menehune, the Mu, and the Wa.  In this story, the Menehune are said to wipe out the Mu and the Wa. The Menehune build things and eventually start to intermarry with Hawaiians. This disturbs their king and they are ordered to depart from the islands to an undisclosed location.

Folklorist Catherine Luomala wrote an extensive paper on Menehune in the Pacific. Her theory suggests that Menehune are in reality the commoners, or makaʻāinana. She suggests the Hawaiians “forgot” who really built these older sites and have “glamorized and romanticized” the working class through stories by transforming them into Menehune. She states that this is a “remarkable literary development” for Polynesia which usually credits its chiefs as the hero builders of important sites (Luomala 83-83).

Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck), Director of the Bishop Museum from 1936 to 1951, theorized that the Menehune were the first settlers of the islands and were either absorbed into the population or driven out by new groups in subsequent migrations. He cites Emory’s work on the previously mentioned Manahune of Tahiti and the Necker and Nihoa Island remains. He states that “in material culture, the knowledge of similar material things can be carried from one area to another only by human beings. On material evidence, therefore, it is obvious a group of the Manahune left their home before the Raiatean invasion and voyaged to Hawai‘i where they built their own form of temple” (Buck 531). But countering Buck’s theory is the fact that in southern Polynesia, no fishponds and no such structure as the famous Menehune ditch of Kauaʻi are known to exist. 

Sometimes Menehune are described as small, dwarf-like, or of a pygmy race. Other histories and stories describe them as men. It is of interest to note that in all of the archaeological digs conducted in the islands, there has never been the discovery of remains that suggests the occupation of any area by a race of small people. Yet, there are so many sites attributed to Menehune, and many families who claim to be descended from Menehune that it can only be regarded as a historical mystery yet to be solved.

There are two stories that tell of the vanquishing of the Menehune from Kūkaʻōʻō and Mānoa Valley. In one story, owls, some of them from the island of Kauaʻi, band together not far from our site at Puʻu Pueo (Terrace Drive is the summit of this puʻu), attack the Menehune, and drive them from the valley. Another story names the chief Kūaliʻi as the one who attacks the Menehune, driving them from the valley and rededicating the heiau of Kūkaʻōʻō.  It is most likely through this story that the estate and home came to be called Kūaliʻi.