The transformation of ancient Hawaii from a loose collection of chiefdoms into the beginnings of a formal society may have happened in as little as 30 years, according to new evidence from 400-year-old temples.
Researchers employed an unusual technique to test the age of eight temples on the islands of Maui and Molokai and found that all were apparently built from about 1565 to 1638.
Anthropologists had previously believed the temples -- which served as religious and economic centers -- were built over a period of 250 years.
"When all the results came back within a tight time span, that was an unexpected finding," said Patrick V. Kirch, a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley and co-author of the study published in the current issue of the journal Science.
Kirch and Warren D. Sharp of the Berkeley Geochronology Center used a technique called thorium-uranium dating to measure the age of branch corals tucked among the stones of the temple foundations.
Like other Polynesians, ancient Hawaiians plucked coral from shallow ocean waters and offered it to their gods in shrines and temples. Kirch and Sharp reasoned that if they could determine when the coral from the temple foundations died, they would know the age of the structures.
Temple construction on Maui was particularly rapid, occurring during a 30-year period beginning in the early 1600s, the researchers said. The time frame coincided with the rise of Chief Pi'ilani, who is credited with unifying two Maui chiefdoms into an enduring political, religious and economic system that went on to encompass nearby islands, according to oral histories taken in the 1800s.
"This can occur within the lifetime of a single ruler," Kirch said. "A single charismatic, dynamic leader can accomplish this."