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The tropical paradise of Hawaii evokes images of volcanoes, beaches, surfing, and a rich culture. But when exactly was this remote island chain in the Pacific formed? If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The Hawaiian islands began forming over 70 million years ago as volcanoes erupting up from the sea floor created islands that moved across the Pacific plate over millions of years.

The island chain as we know it today took shape over the last 5-7 million years.

In this comprehensive guide, we will trace the geological origins of the Hawaiian islands over 70 million years ago up through statehood in 1959. We’ll cover the hotspot that created the island chain, the age of each major island, key events in Hawaii’s history, and the territorial evolution that led to it becoming the 50th US state.

The Origins of the Hawaiian Hotspot Over 70 Million Years Ago

The Hawaiian Emperor Seamount Chain

The Hawaiian Islands were formed by a geological hotspot in the Pacific Ocean. This hotspot is an unusually hot plume of mantle rising from deep within the Earth’s interior, called the “Hawaiian hotspot.”

It has been active for over 70 million years, slowly moving across the Pacific tectonic plate and creating a chain of volcanoes that stretch nearly 3,600 miles across the Pacific.

This chain of volcanoes is known as the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain, first mapped in the 1950s. It begins with the Emperor seamounts, now underwater extinct volcanoes over 50 million years old. The chain then continues with the Hawaiian ridge and islands, representing the last 70 million years of volcanic activity.

As the Pacific plate moves northwestward over the hotspot at a rate of about 1 inch per year, the volcanoes become inactive and erode over millions of years, eventually sinking below sea level to become seamounts.

But the hotspot itself remains fixed deep underground, continuing to punch through the crust and create new volcanoes.

How the Hotspot Created the Islands

Today the Hawaiian hotspot supplies magma to the active volcanoes on the Island of Hawaiʻi, including Mauna Loa and Kilauea. As the Pacific plate slowly drifts over the hotspot, the magma penetrates through the plate, erupting to form volcanic islands.

Each Hawaiian island is formed in turn, with the oldest islands furthest to the northwest. For example, atolls like Midway and Kure in the far northwest are around 28 million years old and have subsided below sea level over time.

The “Big Island” of Hawaiʻi is still being formed right now by the hotspot.

Every island in the Hawaiian chain exists because of this deep mantle plume, which has been producing melt below the Pacific plate for at least 70 million years. It continues creating volcanic eruptions on the Big Island today, building the Hawaiian island chain higher over geological time.

The Formation of the Main Hawaiian Islands Over 7 Million Years

Kauai – 5.1 Million Years Old

The Garden Isle of Kauai is the oldest and fourth largest of the main Hawaiian Islands. According to geologists, Kauai started forming over 5.1 million years ago from successive lava eruptions from a hotspot under the Pacific Ocean crust.

Over hundreds of thousands of years, these eruptions built up Kauai volcano, which last erupted between 3.6–5.1 million years ago. Fun fact: parts of the famous Na Pali cliffs on Kauai’s north shore date all the way back to these early eruptions!

Oahu – 3.7 Million Years Old

The third largest island, Oahu, began forming around 3.7 million years ago. Like the other islands, Oahu volcano grew over successive eruptions fed by the Hawaiian hotspot. The main mass of Oahu consists of two extinct volcanoes known as Waianae and Koolau.

Waianae last erupted between 2.6–3.6 million years ago. Koolau is slightly younger, with its most recent eruption roughly 2 million years ago. Today, iconic landmarks like Diamond Head and extinct craters dot Oahu’s landscape as reminders of its fiery past.

Maui Nui – 2.2 Million Years Old

What we know as Maui today was once part of a much larger landmass called Maui Nui that included the islands of Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe. Maui Nui began forming around 2.2 million years ago from twin volcanoes named Mauna Kahalawai and Mauna Loa.

At its peak size, Maui Nui stretched over 5,640 square miles—nearly the size of Hawaii Island today! Eventually around 500,000 years ago, erosion broke up the islands into the familiar forms we currently see.

Hawaii Island – 0.7 Million Years Old

The Big Island of Hawaii is not only the largest island, but also the youngest geologically. Hawaii Island started forming around 700,000 years ago from the 5 volcanic centers of Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Kilauea.

In fact, Kilauea is the most active volcano on the island and has been continuously erupting since 1983! Thanks to Hawaii Island’s youth and active volcanism, geologists estimate the island could continue growing for another 700,000+ years—truly making it the biggest and still growing main Hawaiian Island.

First Hawaiian Settlements by Polynesians

Original Settlement

The first settlers of Hawaii were likely Polynesian voyagers who made their way to the Hawaiian Islands sometime between 124 AD and 1120 AD. These early Polynesians came from other Pacific islands like Tahiti and the Marquesas on outrigger canoes.

They brought with them their language, cultural traditions, belief systems, and sustenance like taro, sweet potato, coconut, banana, sugarcane, chickens, pigs and dogs.

It’s believed they intentionally set out to find new islands, guided by the stars, wind, and ocean currents. The original founders, estimated to be about 30-100 men and women, landed at different parts of Hawaii.

Over time, subsequent voyages brought more settlers who intermarried and populated the islands.

Development of a Unique Culture

Over the centuries, Hawaiian culture evolved into something unique from other Polynesian societies. The land was divided into ahupua’a which were wedge-shaped pieces of land that ran from the mountains to the sea. This allowed residents access to the wide variety of resources each ahupua’a offered.

A complex social structure was established with aliʻi (chiefs) and kahuna (priests and skilled craftspeople).

Hawaiians developed their own language, religious system with many gods (Kāne, Kū, Lono and Kanaloa), hula dancing, musical instruments, epic stories, and sports like surfing and wrestling. They lived in harmony with the land and sea, understanding seasons and ocean patterns which enabled successful fishing and farming.

By the time British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in 1778, native Hawaiians had established a thriving, self-sufficient society across the major Hawaiian islands with a population estimated between 400,000 to nearly 1 million.

Hawaii’s History Up Through Statehood

Unification of the Islands Under King Kamehameha

In the late 18th century, the Hawaiian Islands were divided into several kingdoms ruled by local chiefs. Around 1795, King Kamehameha I embarked on a campaign to unite the islands under his rule. After years of warfare, Kamehameha succeeded in uniting all the main Hawaiian Islands by 1810, establishing the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Growing Foreign Influence and Eventual Overthrow

As foreign powers like Britain, France and the United States took interest in Hawaii for its strategic location, their influence on the kingdom’s economy and politics grew. American businessmen dominated industries like sugar and pineapple.

In 1887, King Kalakaua was forced to sign a new constitution stripping powers from the monarchy.

In 1893, a group of American and European businessmen and landowners, seeking control of the kingdom’s resources, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani with support from US troops. The new government sought annexation by the US, but President Cleveland opposed it.

The Republic of Hawaii was declared instead in 1894.

Territorial Status to Statehood

Annexation was eventually approved in 1898 at the height of the Spanish-American War. In 1900, Hawaii was established as a US territory governed by the federal government. The early territorial years saw the rise of the plantation economy relying on immigrant labor from Asia and Europe.

During WWII, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor profoundly impacted Hawaii. After the war, the islands’ economy and demographics diversified. The Democratic Party became ascendant. Calls for statehood grew louder, viewed as a step toward equality and shedding the territory’s colonial past.

Hawaii officially became the 50th US state in 1959 after a referendum.


As we traced over 70 million years of Hawaii’s origins from undersea volcanoes to becoming the 50th American state in 1959, we covered the hotspot that created the island chain, learned the ages of the major islands, explored early Hawaiian settlements, highlighted key events in Hawaii’s history, and saw its transition to statehood.

Understanding the geological forces that built Hawaii over millennia helps appreciate the remote beauty of this unique island paradise today. But the islands’ diverse culture and complicated history from monarchial rule to US territory makes clear Hawaii’s path to statehood was no day at the beach.

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