The Menehune are described as superb craftspeople. They built temples (heiau), fishponds, roads, canoes, and houses. Some of these structures that Hawaiian folklore attributed to the Menehune still exist. They are said to have lived in Hawaiʻi before settlers arrived from Polynesia many centuries ago. Their favorite food is the maiʻa (banana), and they also like fish. Legend has it that the Menehune will only appear during night hours, in order to build masterpieces. But if they fail to complete their work in the length of the night, they will leave it unoccupied. No one but their children and humans connected to them are able to see the Menehune.
No physical evidence for the existence of a historical people that fit the description of the Menehune has been discovered.
In Martha Warren Beckwith's Hawaiian Mythology, there are references to several other forest dwelling races: the Nawao, who were large-sized wild hunters descended from Lua-nuʻu, the mu people, and the wa people.
Some early scholars hypothesized that there was a first settlement of Hawaiʻi, by settlers from the Marquesas Islands, and a second, from Tahiti. The Tahitian settlers oppressed the "commoners", the manahune in the Tahitian language, who fled to the mountains and were called Menahune. Proponents of this hypothesis point to an 1820 census of Kauaʻi by Kaumualiʻi, the ruling aliʻi aimoku of the island, which listed 65 people as menehune.
Folklorist Katharine Luomala believes that the legends of the Menehune are a post-European contact mythology created by adaptation of the term manahune (which by the time of the colonization of the Hawaiian Islands by Europeans had acquired a meaning of "lowly people" or "low social status" and not diminutive in stature) to European legends of brownies. It is claimed that "Menehune" are not mentioned in pre-contact mythology, although this is unproven since it was clearly an oral mythology; the legendary "overnight" creation of the Alekoko fishpond, for example, finds its equivalent in the legend about the creation of a corresponding structure on Oʻahu, which was supposedly indeed completed in a single day — not by menehune but, as a show of power, by a local aliʻi who commanded every one of his subjects appear at the construction site and assist in building.
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