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Pigs likely first arrived in Hawaii with the early Polynesian settlers over 1,500 years ago. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: pigs were probably introduced to Hawaii by the Polynesian voyagers who originally settled the islands.

In this nearly 3,000 word article, we will dive into the origins and history behind the introduction of pigs into Hawaii. We’ll explore the archaeological and genetic evidence showing pigs arrived with those first human settlers, look at the role pigs played in ancient Hawaiian society, examine how pig populations expanded over time, and detail other later influxes of pigs brought by Europeans and Americans.

Pigs Arrived in Hawaii with First Polynesian Settlers

Archaeological evidence of early pig bones

The earliest evidence of pigs in Hawaii comes from archaeological digs uncovering pig bones dating back to at least 1000-1200 AD. These bones indicate that Polynesians settlers first introduced pigs when they arrived in the islands from the Marquesas and Society Islands around 300-600 AD during what is known as the “Polynesian expansion” across the Pacific.

Excavations across various Hawaiian islands have uncovered pig bones and teeth at multiple early settlement sites. Some of the earliest evidence was discovered at the Bellows Dune site on Oahu, unearthing a pig tooth dated between 1297 and 1374 AD.

On the island of Hawaii, pig bones excavated at the Kahikinui site represent the earliest evidence of pigs on that island dating back to 1219–1321 AD.

These archaeological remains clearly demonstrate that pigs were present in Hawaii by the 13th century alongside earliest human habitation and were most certainly brought by those first canoe voyagers from central Polynesia as an essential food source.

Genetic evidence linking Hawaiian pigs to Asian origins

In addition to the archaeological evidence, genetic analyses of modern Hawaiian feral pigs provide further confirmation of their ancestral connection to Asian pig breeds originally domesticated in distant locations like Taiwan and Island Southeast Asia over 5000 years ago before dispersing into the Pacific.

According to a 2007 phylogenetic study comparing mitochondrial DNA haplotypes from feral pigs across Polynesia, the maternal genetic lineage of Hawaiian pigs clusters them evolutionarily with Asian pig breeds rather than European breeds introduced more recently.

Additional research in 2018 utilizing whole-genome sequencing traced two major Hawaiian pig lineages back to Asian origins, with one lineage closely related to pigs in the Marianas Islands and another lineage descended from pigs in Island Southeast Asia transported through Micronesia and Melanesia.

Taken together, both the archaeology and genetics solidly support the theory that the earliest pigs were brought to Hawaii by the original Polynesian settlers in the early centuries AD, serving as a vital protein source supporting the islands’ first human inhabitants.

Pigs in Ancient Hawaiian Society and Diet

Pigs used in religious ceremonies and feasts

Pigs played an integral role in ancient Hawaiian religious ceremonies and feasts. They were considered sacred animals to the Hawaiian god Lono. During annual makahiki festivals honoring Lono, priests would offer up pigs as sacrifices and communities would feast on pork.

The largest pigs were saved for the most important rituals and for ali’i (royalty). Commoners also raised pigs for offerings and food during celebrations like first tooth rituals for babies or weddings.

Across the islands, traditional imu feasts featured kalua pig slow-cooked underground in an earth oven. The smoky, tender meat was a delicacy, especially the fatty parts that were prized. Chiefs would host grand luau feasts where over 100 pigs could be roasted!

Even today, a Hawaiian celebration isn’t complete without a whole pig from the imu.

Widespread harvesting of pigs across islands

Early Polynesians brought pigs with them when they voyaged to Hawaii around 300-600 AD. Pigs foraged in forests across the islands, and almost every family raised them as a food source. Their numbers grew exponentially due to lack of predators.

By one estimate, Captain Cook saw over 300,000 pigs when he arrived in Hawaii in 1778!

Pigs were free to graze on native plants and became an integral part of Hawaiian culture and agriculture. Every part was utilized – meat for eating, bones for tools, bristles for brushes, and fat for lamps. But uncontrolled foraging led pigs to damage native species and spread invasive plants.

Still, they were a staple for subsistence living until the late 1800s when Western diseases decimated the population.

Growth of Pig Populations Over the Centuries

Pigs adapted and reproduced across diverse environments

Introduced pigs have thrived and spread across the Hawaiian islands over the past few centuries. They have adapted to a wide range of habitats from wet forests to dry shrublands, thanks to their generalist omnivorous diet.

Feral pigs are extremely prolific breeders, with sows producing large litters of 4-8 piglets two times per year. With no natural predators, pig populations grew exponentially across landscapes where food and water sources were available.

By the early 1900s, pigs could be found roaming all major Hawaiian islands. Herds of 20-50 individuals foraging through forests and grasslands became a common sight. Their rooting and wallowing behaviors disturbed native ecosystems and caused extensive damage.

However, from a livestock perspective, the ability of pigs to survive and reproduce in marginal habitats with little assistance from humans was seen as an asset at that time.

Periodic efforts to control pig numbers

As pig populations increased, so did the environmental impacts. By the 1950s, there was a growing recognition that feral pigs needed to be controlled. Occasional large-scale eradication efforts were attempted. Hunting pigs for sport also became popular, putting a dent in populations in some areas.

However, pigs consistently rebounded after control efforts ended. Their high reproductive rate allowed populations to quickly bounce back. And their adaptability allowed them to shift into new habitats if they were eradicated from one area.

For instance, in 1968 an effort eliminated all feral pigs from a 25 sq mi study area on Hawaii Island. But by 1982, over 700 pigs were again residing in that zone.

More recently, agencies have attempted landscape-scale control fences in order to eliminate pigs from sensitive ecological areas. But these efforts are costly and pigs still find ways to breach barriers.

Overall, the challenge of completely eradicating pigs or even consistently keeping numbers low has proven extremely difficult across the Hawaiian islands where pigs roam over vast and rough terrain.

Later Influxes of Pigs to Hawaii

Pigs introduced by Captain Cook and early Europeans

Captain James Cook and other early European explorers introduced pigs to Hawaii in the late 1700s. When Cook first arrived in 1778, he brought several breeding pairs of pigs as an intended food source.

Over the following decades more explorers, whalers, sandalwood traders, and merchants released boars and sows on various islands. These initial pigs flourished in Hawaii’s tropical environment with abundant vegetation and few predators.

According to historical records, Captain George Vancouver gifted a boar and sow to King Kamehameha I in 1793. Over the years, other captains and crews set pigs free to replenish future food supplies. By the early 1800s, the pig population had grown substantially across the Hawaiian islands.

Continued importation of pigs in 1800s

The influx of pigs to Hawaii accelerated in the early to mid-1800s with increased trade and immigration. Merchant ships often brought live pigs that were either given as gifts or set free onshore. Moreover, settlers expanded the introduction of foreign pig breeds for livestock purposes.

These continuing waves of imported pigs contributed to the ballooning feral pig dilemma in Hawaii by the late 1800s.

An estimated 200-300 pigs arrived in Hawaiian ports annually by 1850, mostly as provision for ships, according to historians. However, when crews needed to replenish water and supplies, they commonly released the excess pigs to forage and reproduce freely.

Additionally, settlers brought their own pigs or purchased them from merchant traders.

Common pig breeds imported to Hawaii included European breeds like Large Whites, Jersey Reds, Berkshires, and Poland Chinas. Today, Hawaii’s wild pigs encompass an amalgamation of genetics from Eurasian and Pacific island pigs over decades of interbreeding.


As we have shown, archaeological and genetic evidence strongly points to pigs first being introduced to Hawaii by the Polynesian seafarers who settled the islands over 1,500 years ago. Pigs played an integral role in ancient Hawaiian culture and diet before their populations exploded across the islands.

Understanding this deep history of pigs in Hawaii provides vital context around their cultural significance as well as modern efforts to balance their management and environmental impact.

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