Polynesian voyagers discovered and settled the Hawaiian Islands approximately 1100 years ago. First staking out the lush, watered valleys such as Kaawalii, Maulua, Laupahoehoe, and Waipio in Hamakua, they grew taro, breadfruit, and bananas on the terraced valley floors. Elsewhere, they grew the first sugar cane, raised pigs, chickens and dogs, gathered kukui nut, lilikoi, and medicinal plants, fished the deep ocean, and collected marine resources from the reefs. By approximately 1400 AD the population had blossomed and they expanded to drier parts of the islands where they would grow dryland taro and sweet potato.
The society became highly stratified with the chiefly class, the aliʻi, owning all the land. Each island was divided into districts, or moku, controlled by a chief. Many of these district boundaries are still in use today. The common people, or makaʻainana, worked the land within politically designated resource units called ahupuaʻa. An ahupuaʻa is a piece of land that provides resources from the top of the mountains to the ocean, usually extending like a pie-slice from the mountainous center of the islands and becoming broader as they reached the sea. Each ahupua’a supported their aliʻi, who paid tribute to the moku aliʻi (the chiefs of the moku), who in turn paid tribute to the island’s paramount chief; the aliʻi nui loa. The Hawaiians worshipped a pantheon of gods and built stone temples that ranged from the very large, which could be used for human sacrifices, down to tiny fishing shrines. All of society's rules were framed in a system of kapu, a set of taboos that guided individuals' behavior and rigidly maintained their caste system.
The wealth from agricultural products and the system of tribute allowed the chiefly class time and resources to war on one another throughout and among the islands for territorial acquisition, status, and power. In nearby Waipio Valley, 6 miles east of Honokaa, arose the chiefly line of Umi, the most famous of the Island of Hawaiʻi. Legend holds that Umi's descendant, Kamehameha the Great, was hidden in Waipio Valley to protect him from a powerful rival chief. Later, after more than two decades of conflict, Kamehameha was the first to unite the Islands under a single monarch in 1810. His dynasty would rule the Hawaiian Kingdom until the late 19th century.
The Windward Coast is very rainy, with many deep gulches and, as a rule, is too steep to farm, excepting an area above Waipio Valley with diverted water. In this period the Hamakua Coast was heavily wooded with the brilliantly red-flowered native oʻhia lehua, and fragrant Hawaiian sandlewood. The forest cover provided firewood, food and medicinal plants to those in the valleys and habitat for the iʻiwi honey creeper, whose beautiful red feathers were used to make feather capes for the aliʻi.
The terrain was rough, and much of the coast was difficult to traverse, even through the early 20th century, so it is not surprising that part of the ancient trail (alaloa) that crossed the valleys and ridges and was one of the few connections between the different moku in Hamakua is now the main street through Honokaa town.