Paʻao is either a figure from a Hawaiian legend or a historical character. He is said to have been a high priest from Kahiki, specifically "Wawau" and "'Upolu." In Hawaiian prose and chant, the term "Kahiki" is applied in reference to any land outside of Hawai'i, although the linguistic root is conclusively derived from Tahiti. "Wawau" and "'Upolu" point to actual places in the Society Islands, Samoa, and/or Tonga, although Hawaiian scholars and royal commentators consistently claim Pa'ao came from either Samoa or Tahiti, or even that he was a Tahitian resident of Samoan origin. King Kalakaua, in his "Legends and Myths of Hawai'i," clearly defined the lineage of "Tahitian" chiefs and those aristocrats and priests descended from "Samoa" (i.e. Pa'ao and Pili). Accounts recorded by Mary Kawena Puku'i, David Malo, Abraham Fornander, Kanuikaikaina, and other custodians of Hawaiian lore support the notion that Pili and Pa'ao came from the islands known today as Samoa. Legends suggest that Pa'ao introduced certain customs (such as human sacrifice and veneration of the bonito fish) to Hawaii. He is also said to have brought a "pure" chief to rule over the Hawaiians.
The Paʻao story makes its first documented historical appearance in 1835–1836, in a collection of Hawaiian traditions called Moolelo Hawaii assembled by Hawaiian students of Lahainaluna School, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. This collection was the basis of Sheldon Dibble's 1838 history of Hawaii. David Malo was one of the Lahainaluna students active in collecting oral traditions. He continued collecting legends and when he died in 1854, he had completed an unpublished manuscript that was finally translated to English and published in 1898.
Martha Beckwith, in her Hawaiian Mythology (1940, as republished in 1970), notes these historical sources:
The Paʻao story also survives in various oral traditions passed down through Native Hawaiian families. Some Hawaiians insist on the purity and reliability of these traditions, but academic scholars believe that much from these traditions has been shaped by easily-available published versions of the narrative.
However, there is no reason to doubt that the Paʻao story was widespread in pre-contact times. A lineage of Hawaiian high priests claimed descent from Paʻao, and Hawaiian high chiefs traced their genealogies to Pili-kaaiea (Pili), the "pure" chief brought by Paʻao. Paʻao is said to have introduced human sacrifice, the walled heiau, the red feather girdle, the puloʻuloʻu kapu sign, the prostrating kapu, the veneration of aku fish, and the feather god Tairi. The Paʻao narrative justified and sanctioned the social order as it then existed.
We are informed (by historical tradition) that two men named Paao and Makua-kaumana, with a company of others, voyaged hither, observing the stars as a compass; and that Paao remained in Kohala, while Makua-Kaumana returned to Tahiti. Paao arrived at Hawaii during the reign of Lono-ka-wai, the king of Hawaii. He (Lono-ka-wai) was the sixteenth in that line of kings, succeeding Kapawa. Paao continued to live in Kohala until the kings of Hawaii became degraded and corrupted (hewa); then he sailed away to Tahiti to fetch a king from thence. Pili (Kaaiea) was that king and he became one in Hawaii's line of kings (papa alii).
–David Malo, Hawaiian Antiquities, 1951 edition, p. 6.
The main outlines of the story follow. Many details vary from version to version. In one version told by British missionary William Ellis in 1826 Paʻao was a Caucasian chief.
Paʻao is said to have been a priest and a master navigator. He lived on a distant island called Kahiki in the oldest versions, and identified as either Tahiti or Samoa by believers in the historicity of the narrative.
His older brother, Lonopele, was the chief priest in some versions of the story, or the ruler of the island in others. Lonopele accused Paʻao's son of removing some kapu fish from the royal fishpond, or with stealing fruit. Paʻao was angry at his brother's persecution and in his anger, he killed his own son and ripped open the corpse's stomach, showing that there were no remnants of kapu fish or of fruit, in another version these partially digested foods were found.
Paʻao brooded over his misfortunes and decided to migrate to a distant land, far from his brother. He readied three large canoes for the voyage. He placed a kapu over the boats; no one was to touch the canoes without his permission. One evening, Paʻao discovered his nephew, the son of Lonopele, touching one of the sacred canoes. Paʻao killed his nephew and buried him in the sand under one of the canoes, which was elevated on blocks. Flies buzzed around the decomposing corpse, so the canoe was named Ka-nalo-a-muia, "the buzzing of flies."
Paʻao hurriedly assembled his retainers, launched the voyaging canoes, and departed. He left in such a hurry that one of his followers, an aged priest or prophet named Makuakaumana, was left behind. Makuakaumana climbed a cliff and called out to Paʻao; Paʻao refused to stop, saying that the canoes were full, all save the projection of the stern. Makuakaumana leapt from the cliff and gained his position in the canoe.
Paʻao sailed by the stars until they reached the Big Island of Hawaii. They landed in Puna, where Paʻao built the stone temple platform, or heiau, of Aha-ula, or Red Mouth. This was the first luakini heiau in Hawaii, the first heiau where human sacrifices were offered. He is also said to have landed in Kohala, on the opposite side of the island, and built the famous heiau of Mo'okini.
Paʻao believed that the chiefs of Hawaiʻi had become hewa, or degraded, by indiscriminate intermarriage with lesser chiefs and commoners. He is said to have returned to his home island to fetch a chief of impeccable ancestry. He asked Lono-ka-eho, or Lono, who refused, and then recruited Pili-kaaiea, or Pili. Paʻao and Pili, along with Pili's chiefs and warriors, and their families, returned to Hawaiʻi, where Pili became the new high chief.
All the succeeding chiefs of the island claimed descent from the legendary Pili. Paʻao's descendants became priests, and their line or order, called Holaʻe, continued into historical times. The last high priest, Hewahewa, who acquiesced to Christianity and the breaking of the kapus or Ai Noa in 1819, claimed descent from Paʻao.
Until fairly recently, Hawaiian historians relied primarily on recorded oral history and comparative linguistics and ethnology. The "two migrations" theory was widely accepted. That is, in a first migration, Polynesians (specifically, Marquesans) settled the Hawaiian islands. In the second migration, Tahitians came north, conquered the original settlers, and established stratified chiefdoms. More contemporary research indicates that waves of settlers from Samoa and Tonga also arrived on Hawaiian shores, contributing to the cultural, linguistic, and genetic composition of the Hawaiians.
Hawaiian archaeology then came into its own and sought material evidence for two migrations. If the two migrations theory were correct, one would expect a sharp discontinuity in some features of material culture, such as heiau plans, house and settlement patterns, fishhook styles, etc. But archaeologists found no evidence whatsoever for a second migration. Rather, they found evidence for a gradual but relentless increase in settlement size and stratification. The Hawaiian polity seems to have evolved without any discernible outside stimulus.
Academic historians and archaeologists have now abandoned the two migrations theory. The Paʻao story is considered nothing more than a myth to some. In this mythical interpretation, the Kahiki from which Paʻao was said to have sailed was not the actual geographical Tahiti or Samoa, but the divine realm, past the horizon (see Hawaiki). In this sense, the Paʻao story bestows a divine origin for the high chiefs and the practices with which they were associated (such as human sacrifice, prostrating kapus, and the like). There are many other Hawaiian and Polynesian myths with the same elements as the Paʻao narrative, which may subsequently be viewed as assembled from "stock parts."
However, many Native Hawaiians and scholars who have studied the narratives believe the Paʻao narrative contains elements of actual history, and reflects a literal wave of migration from the south. The Polynesian Voyaging Society's undertakings, such as Hawaiiloa canoe's voyages, indicate the feasibility of long voyages in ancient Polynesian canoes and the reliability of celestial navigation; these demonstrations show that the types of voyaging mentioned in the Pa'ao stories were indeed feasible, but the recreated voyages do little to prove the authenticity of the Pa'ao legends.
Hawaiian attitudes towards the high chiefs have changed; the ancient high chiefs are often seen today as oppressors, invaders who descended upon a peaceful and egalitarian Hawaiian population. Activists praise these pre-Paʻao days as the real Hawaiian past, to be revived and reenacted in the present, and vilify Paʻao as a source of Hawaiian problems. In this version, all the problems faced by Native Hawaiians can be traced to foreign interference.