Welcome to my review of America Unearthed S02E06 “The Lost Tribe of Menehune,” or, what Scott Wolter did on his totally not staged for the camera summer vacation. Before we get started, a little background on the Menehune is probably a good idea. I admit this was a myth with which I wasn’t previously familiar.
According to a modern legend given to tourists on the island of Kauai for the past century or so, the island had once been part of a vast continent stretching across the Pacific Ocean. This island was inhabited by a race of dwarves, about two feet high (range: 23 to 39 inches). These dwarves, called the Menehune, numbered more than half a million souls, and they were responsible for building the heiau, Hawaii’s ancient stone temples, as well as roads, canals, and dams—all of Hawaii’s prehistoric infrastructure. They worked only at night, and they completed each construction project before the following dawn, passing rocks by hand from one dwarf to another in a chain stretching from Kauai’s quarries to the construction site. They sometimes ran work chains as long as twelve miles, according to the legend of Pi’s ditch recorded by the American Charles Skinner after the U.S. extended its protectorate over Hawaii at the end of the nineteenth century.
According to a version of the story current in the nineteenth century, the Menehune were invisible to non-native visitors to Hawaii, and only Natives could see them. Skinner recorded that their most distinctive characteristic was that they snicker and laugh at passersby from the safety of the woods in which they live invisible. Some said that the Menehune were the ancestors of Native Hawaiians.
Surprisingly or not, no skeleton of one of these half million craftsman-dwarves, nor even a trace of their miniature tools, has ever been found on Kauai or any other Hawaiian island. Nor, for that matter, have any remains been found of other Hawaiian mythical peoples, such as the forest-dwelling Nawao or the Mu, nor of the god Paupueo, who sends owls (the pueo, also thought to be ancestral spirits) to chase away the Menehune when their population grows too large for the islands.
Another tale states that these creatures threw rocks into the mouth a giant, giving him indigestion and prompting him to lie sleeping on Kauai to this very day—the famous Sleeping Giant, a mountain that vaguely resembles a humanlike figure in repose.
Many Hawaiians in the nineteenth century believed that the Menehune had supernatural powers, as recorded by American visitors, though a tract published more than a century ago by the Bishop Museum of Hawaii recorded that the Menehune were not supernatural, but rather possessed of extraordinary strength and energy. It is a distinct difference of opinion, and many writers, from missionaries to the King of Hawaii himself, tried to identify the Menehune with the grandchildren of Noah, equating the biblical patriarch with Nu’u (or Nuu), a Hawaiian mythic figure who was said to have built an Ark to escape the Great Flood. Sadly, Nu’u did not exist in Hawaiian mythology in 1822 when William Ellis arrived to preach Christianity to the Hawaiians. He wrote that as concerns the Flood, “they had never before heard of a ship, or of Noah.” Not long after his preaching, later missionaries began reporting their astonishment that the natives they encountered already had a legend of Noah, or Nu’u! Sir James G. Frazer was undoubtedly right in concluding that the modern Hawaiian myth of Nu’u is a derivative of the missionaries’ biblical preaching.
Hawaii’s last king, David Kalakaua, wrote in his Legends and Myths of Hawaii in 1888 that Nuu was the Hawaiian Noah, that the early history of Hawaii was exactly analogous to that of the wandering Hebrews down to the time of Joseph (including the creation, Lucifer, Cain and Abel, etc.), and that the Menehune were possibly a Lost Tribe of Israel, though he felt it more likely that they were of a heathen Asian tribe who picked up Bible stories from contact with Jews or Christians. As should be obvious, Kalakaua’s account is in fact a reflection of missionaries’ Christian preaching, not a genuinely old Hebraic tradition in Hawaii.
The Hawaiian legend of the Menehune is not as famous as other little people of world mythology, and likely for good reason: Historians have been unable to trace back before European contact in 1778 the story of the fairy-like creatures said to have built Hawaii’s ancient temples. We have just seen how quickly European myths could spread in Hawaii in the case of Noah, and many believe that the Menehune may have their origin in tales of the Scottish and northern English brownies, a kind of hobgoblin, brought to the islands by British sailors. No accepted pre-contact myth makes any mention of the Menehune. In fact, the most prominent theory about the origins of these creatures ascribes them to a misunderstanding arising from communication challenges during the contact period.
According to folklorist Katharine Luomala, the word menehune or manahune meant “lowly” or “common” at the time of European contact and was used by the Hawaiians to explain that the stone structures of the Hawaiian Islands had been constructed by the common people under orders from the aristocracy and royalty. In other words, the high status Hawaiians differentiated themselves from low-status common laborers. A similar, though less currently popular, theory supposes that the Hawaiian Islands were first settled by people from the Marquesas around 300 CE, whose last few descendants down to the 1820 census called themselves menehune. They had lower social status than the later-arriving Tahitians of c. 1000 CE, who eliminated most of the Marquesians and may have remembered them in myth as laboring dwarves. This in turn derives from the Tahitian ethnonym manahune, which took on a negative connotation after Raiateans conquered the Tahitians and reduced them to commoners. The Tahitians that settled Hawaii then applied the derisive ethnonym to the original settlers of Hawaii.
Bizarre fact: The British sailors who brought the stories of the brownies to Hawaii probably were those who sailed with Captain Cook on his third voyage. Cook, in turn, sailed on his first voyage with Johann Reinhold Forster, the dispossessed Scottish noble who invented the myth that Henry Sinclair was the Zichmni of the hoax Zeno narrative! Damn you Captain Cook! You have given us by chance two crazy America Unearthed ideas!
Given that the Menehune do not seem to exist in legend prior to 1778, and no skeletons of this half-million-strong contingent have ever been found, nearly every mainstream scholar is happy to assign the creatures to modern folklore. That hasn’t stopped fringe historians from using them to support some bizarre speculation.
Lewis Spence, a Scottish writer of bad ideas about mythology, used the Menehune myth in The Problem of Lemuria (1932) to support the existence of the Theosophical continent of Lemuria, arguing that the Hawaiian tale of a sunken continent correlated well with Theosophy’s sunken continent, as well as Col. James Churchward’s lost continent of Mu, his version of Lemuria. Weirdly enough, the Mu were another race of forest-dwellers living alongside the Menehune. They differ only in that the Mu have beards and are hairy, while the Menehune are typically clean-shaven. (Though even this is not clear; sometimes the Menehune are hairy, too!)
But the most important fringe claim about the Menehune emerged after the discovery of the Homo floresiensis, an apparent species of short-statured humans popularly called “hobbits,” on the island of Flores in Indonesia in 2003. This extinct species, if it is indeed a unique species, stood approximately three feet tall, roughly correlating to the size the Menehune in Hawaiian legend. On Flores and Sumatra, there was a parallel myth of super-strong wild men, the mili mongga and the ana ula, that also built ancient stone buildings, though these creatures were described as more or less orangutan-human hybrids.
From such foundations, Frank Joseph, the ex-Neo-Nazi convicted pedophile who once edited Ancient American magazine, published work by Scott Wolter, and tirelessly promoted Burrows Cave (from S02E05 last week), declared in 2011’s The Lost Civilization of Lemuria (which is very similar to Spence in may points) that the discovery of the Flores hobbits demonstrated that the Menehune could well have existed and that DNA evidence (?) indicated that the Flores people sailed across the Pacific, reaching Hawaii 12,000 years ago, some 10,300 years earlier than the earliest archaeological traces of human habitation in Hawaii. The Flores hobbits, of course, built no cyclopean stone buildings that archaeology has found on Flores. He said that either the Hawaiians “maintained a factual memory over an astounding 12,000 years” (not likely given how little time Hawaii has been occupied) or that Flores creatures continued living in Hawaii down to 1820, when the last menehune (manahune) recorded their existence on a census form and died. He did not distinguish between the mythical creatures and the term for low-status Marquesians, but he did say that his conclusions were supported by psychic visions from actress Shirley MacLaine, who declared Hawaii the capital of Lemuria.
And if those were not enough connections, would it surprise you to learn that the Tucson Lead Artifacts are tied in as well since they are ruthlessly promoted by Cyclone Covey, who also supports Burrows Cave, and thus Frank Joseph, who in turn advocates for Lemuria? Or that in 1979 Frank Joseph (formerly Frank Collin) was imprisoned at the same penitentiary where Richard Burrows served as a guard just before the alleged 1982 discovery of Burrows Cave? Or that Harry Hubbard of Alexander Helios from last week’s episode used to be an ancient astronaut theorist who believed, with some support from Covey, that a UFO brought the body of Alexander the Great to Burrows Cave? This gets us a bit far from magical Hawaiian dwarves, but I am troubled by the coincidence that so many America Unearthed topics parallel the work of Frank Joseph and the network surrounding Burrows Cave, or at least Ancient American magazine, which Joseph used to edit, and to which Scott Wolter has been a past contributor.
We open with a woman running through a foggy jungle in the rain. Unseen creatures surround her, and she is fearful. She comes across a cyclopean stone wall, sees a dwarf that looks something like Chucky from the Child’s Play horror films, and screams. That’s not very politically correct. I don’t think we’re supposed to scream at dwarves today, and at any rate it doesn’t match the legend, in which the Menehune are subject to human control and in fact perform construction work to order upon request. Then we smash-cut to the opening credits, followed by a shot of Scott Wolter’s empty office as a voice mail response tells viewers he’s on vacation. Some glamour shots of Hawaii follow as Wolter and his wife Janet watch their son Grant play in a hotel pool. Wolter, in totally not staged banter tells his wife that he can do better water-sport tricks than Grant because he’s a manly man.
The acting is utterly painful as Wolter pretends to stumble across the mystery of the Menehune while promoting a spa run by Disney, a company that they fail to acknowledge is a 50% owner of A+E Networks, corporate parent of H2. Footage of the restort was provided by Disney Destinations, LLC, according to the end credits. Children who can’t act pretend that they spontaneously asked Wolter about the dwarves. Wolter feigns shock that wherever he goes, he sees American mysteries. A hotel employee, Todd Apo, tells Wolter about the legend of the Menehune and why Disney chose to include artistic representations of them throughout its resort.
Apo tells Wolter that many of Hawaii’s temples are attributed to the Menehune, and Wolter pretends that he is only now intrigued, despite having a camera crew coincidentally following him around. Apo explains what a Menehune was, and he asserts that other Polynesian cultures have myths of the Menehune, conflating them with the class or ethnic group called manahune.
Wolter sets out to view the Menehune’s stone walls and structures, and he hopes that he can date the buildings to before the coming of the Native Hawaiians. He says that he’s skeptical, but Apo tells him that there are “hobbits”—note carefully the pregnant use of the word associated with the Flores skeletons—at the University of Hawaii. On that note, we cut to our first commercial break.
After the break, Wolter repeats what we’ve already heard and then summarizes recent Hawaiian history, which is largely irrelevant. He neglects to note the failure by folklorists to find the Menehune in pre-contact legends, instead telling us that they are found across Polynesia. Subtlety isn’t Wolter’s strong suit, nor, apparently, is a fair summary of facts.
He slowly makes his way to the University of Hawaii, where a full two minutes after returning from break he finally gets around to seeing a cast—a cast!—of a skull of Homo florensiensis, where he seems to be taking over Frank Joseph’s speculation wholesale, asking if the Flores hobbits could have sailed to Hawaii. The expert he discusses the skull with explains the evidence for whether Homo florensiensis is a distinct species from other Homo species or a diseased specimen, and he tells Wolter that the Flores hobbits went extinct about 12,000 years ago. He also tells Wolter that evolution can produce dwarfism in isolated environments. Some half-hearted digs at evolution occur, a sop to creationists, but the expert tells Wolter that there has been no evidence whatsoever of any hobbits, dwarves, or elves found anywhere in Hawaii.
Wolter then summarizes what we just heard in a staged phone conversation with his wife, and she tells him about the 65 menehune recorded on Kauai in the 1820 census. “Pack your bags!” Wolter shouts as we head to another commercial. Do I need to tell you that this “fact” (confusing the ethnic term for the mythic figure) was included on the very same page of Frank Joseph’s The Lost Civilization of Lemuria (p. 163) as the Flores hobbit speculation?
After the break, we get a text-based recap of what we just heard, and Wolter is off to Kauai as Wolter then verbally recaps what the text just told us. Wolter now tells us that he wonders if the Flores hobbits sailed to Hawaii after a volcano destroyed Flores—Hawaii, on the other side of the Pacific! Not Australia, not Asia—Hawaii!
Wolter visits the Menehune Ditch, or Kikiaola, a prehistoric Hawaiian stone wall that modern legend attributes to the Menehune. While the show implies that this was a 24-foot wall stretching for miles, the ditch is in fact a small irrigation ditch of 200 feet made of just 120 blocks, albeit the most perfect of all remaining Hawaiian stonework. Sidney Wheelwright shows Wolter typically Polynesian cyclopean dry-stack construction, and she relates the legend I gave above about their overnight building of the wall passing the rocks from one to the other in a miles-long chain. Wolter dismisses the legend as improbable (you think?), and he slowly documents the stones along what remains of the wall. Wolter determines the obvious, that the rocks are local, probably from the outcroppings located right beside the blocks.
Wolter tries to rationalize the modern legend by asserting that the Menehune must have built the wall at night rather than in one night. He is now a euhemerist.
The show claims that Captain Cook described the ditch during his third voyage (when the Hawaiians killed him), but in fact the first description was given by Capt. George Vancouver in 1792. He was the one who estimated the wall at 24 feet high, though today it is buried. Here is Vancouver’s description:
A lofty perpendicular cliff now presented itself, which, by rising immediately from the river, would have effectually stopped our further progress into the country, had it not been for an exceedingly well constructed wall of stones and clay about twenty-four feet high, raised from the bottom by the side of the cliff, which not only served as a pass into the country, but also as an aqueduct, to convey the water brought thither by great labour from a considerable distance; the place where the river descends from the mountains affording the planters an abundant stream, for the purpose to which it is so advantageously applied. This wall, which did no less credit to the mind of the projector than to the skill of the builder, terminated the extent of our walk; from whence we returned through the plantations, whose highly-improved state impressed us with a very savorable opinion of the industry and ingenuity of the inhabitants.
It sounds like the wall was not a freestanding structure but rather an abutment building out from natural features of the cliff and serving to channel the water. It is by all accounts astonishing, but not supernaturally so.
Wheelwright explains that menehune and the word for low-class, manahune, are similar terms, and that the working class, the laborers, were probably the people meant by the term. Wolter agrees that the term is most likely referring to lower class laborers, not dwarves, and he goes out of his way to praise the Hawaiians’ rich culture in a way he never praises Native Americans cultures. These few seconds before yet another commercial are Wolter’s first break from Frank Joseph’s version of the story, which moves on to Shirley McLaine and psychic visions of Lemuria. Wolter instead is interested in debunking these ideas, all the better to make his own Templer-Bloodline-Oreo cookie theories look reasonable.
I will offer some faint praise: At the halfway mark, with the exception of a superficial understanding of Hawaiian mythology, this episode has been straightforward and almost mainstream, coming to correct conclusions.
As we return from break we get a text-based recap followed by yet another verbal recap for those too lazy to read or who have forgotten after three seconds. Things go downhill as Wolter tells us that he “is starting to believe” that the Menehune really did build Hawaii’s stone structures at night. He’s off to the Na Pali coast to “immerse myself” in Hawaiian culture. I wonder what the Native Americans think of the unusual deference he’s showing to Hawaiians that he doesn’t give to them in terms of assigning their constructions to their own culture.
Wolter gasps in shock that there is a giant X on the coast, but even he has to admit that it has nothing to do with the Knights Templar, though the callbacks to earlier episodes serve a propaganda purpose of reinforcing the idea that there is some truth to his Hooked X® speculations. Instead, this X is a natural formation caused by lava filling geological fractures, and it has nothing to do with our Menehune hunt.
Wolter then looks at a rock wall built in 2007, which really doesn’t prove much. It is a restoration of a destroyed site that shows affinity with Polynesian architecture, and it probably originates with the first Polynesian settlers. Wolter then reverses course, negating everything he determined in the first half hour of the show, and returns to the idea that Homo florensiensis could have sailed to Hawaii. So far we don’t even know they had boats capable of crossing oceans, or that anything on Hawaii is 12,000 years old. He might want to test for that, but never does. That would ruin the myth.
Wolter hears about the menehune ethnic group from the 1820 census and that the romanticizing of Hawaii in the 1800s probably led to Europeanized folklore making them into fairies and woodland sprites. Wolter is giddy at the thought of traveling to yet another former bombing range near Maui, Kaho‘olawe, on which stands an old Hawaiian cultural site. He says he’ll get there “any way I can,” and as we go to commercial we see him making a big deal out of swimming a few yards from the boat to the shore, where a presumably dry cameraman is standing by filming him. The island, according to mainstream archaeology, was settled around 1000 CE with a temporary fishing village, after which typical Hawaiian stone temples and petroglyphs were added. Evidence of violent warfare indicates that sometime before the contact period, the island’s population died off, but archaeological work is complicated by the fact that the small island was reused by the Hawaiian royal government used the island as penal colony, and then as ranch land, and then abandoned it. The U.S. military used it as a practice range following Pearl Harbor. (At least in my research; the show says from 1939, which may be true.)
After the break, Wolter recaps what we’ve heard, adding nothing for more than 40 minutes, and Wolter asserts his belief that the Menehune existed even if he doesn’t know if they were dwarves or low-status serfs. There’s kind of a bit of a difference between the two that might have been worth investigating rather than wasting most of the hour on theatrics, producing evidence of nothing. Seriously: In this hour Wolter did absolutely nothing. He dated no rock, uncovered no artifacts, researched no texts… nothing! He could have stayed home and produced the exact same results.
Wolter travels across Kaho‘olawe with Kalei Nu’uhiwa, a Hawaiian cultural advocate and the publisher of a lunar newsletter, and she also repeats everything we’ve already heard. Wolter re-asserts that the Flores hobbits might have come to Hawaii and landed on Kaho‘olawe. Because of course they would choose just about the smallest island: They are dwarves! First we might want to prove that the Flores hobbits had sea-worthy boats capable of traveling the ocean, which might require a trip to Flores, which isn’t in the budget. Wolter seems to recognize that this hour has no actual content, and he is purposely substituting fact-free “what-if” speculation about Indonesia for factual archaeology about the peopling of Hawaii under the Polynesians and the interesting question of whether there is a real Marquesas occupation before the Polynesians, a question archaeologists have not yet agreed upon. We might note that the hobbits of Flores built no stone buildings, a fact Wolter chose to omit from his discussion.
Wolter concludes that the Menehune are real even though he admits that there is no evidence and that he doesn’t know whether they were dwarves or serfs or something else. He just thinks that if there is folklore, there must be a real event. Do I have a story a about Nuu and the Ark for him! In short, he simply asserts that the name exists, which is the one part of the story that is almost certainly a modern imposition on Hawaiian lore. A little more research would have made a much more interesting hour by letting Wolter connect the Menehune via the Scottish brownies to Henry Sinclair by way of Captain Cook and Johann Reinhold Forster. Oh well. It’s not my place to write his weird theories for him.
Wolter finishes the hour by telling us that the Menehune—which he admits to not having found or identified—were part of a trans-Pacific seafaring culture that bequeathed civilization to Hawaii. So we end the hour with Wolter admitting to believing in an imaginary trans-Pacific master-builder (read: Masonic!) culture of his own imagination and undermining all his feigned respect for Hawaiian culture by reassigning Hawaiian archaeological sites—which he never bothered to date, even by his own unique methods!—to a pre-Hawaiian race of as much as 12,000 years ago from somewhere, anywhere other than Hawaii, and he never bothers to try to find out where!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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