The Coral Polyp and the Origin of Life

Healthy reef in Maui, Hawaii

As a Hawaiian, I have a deep connection to the both the land and the sea. This stems not only from my personal love of nature but from my belief that all life is interrelated, a belief that drives my work with the Coral Reef Alliance. I learned this early through the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant that explains how life began, our shared genealogy. The ancient chant is more than two thousand lines, practiced, learned and shared over generations. The Kumulipo begins with cosmic darkness.

Coral reef in Maui, Hawaii

O ke au i kahuli wela ka honua
At the time when the earth became hot

O ke au i kahuli lole ka lani
At the time when the heavens turned about

O ke au i kuka‘iaka ka la
At the time when the sun was darkened

E ho‘omalamalama i ka malama
To cause the moon to shine

O ke au o Makali‘i ka po
The time of the rise of the Pleiades

O ka walewale ho‘okumu honua ia
The slime, this was the source of the earth

O ke kumu o ka lipo, i lipo ai
The source of the darkness that made darkness

O ke kumu o ka Po, i po ai
The source of the night that made night

O ka lipolipo, o ka lipolipo
The intense darkness, the deep darkness

O ka lipo o ka la, o ka lipo o ka po
Darkness of the sun, darkness of the night

Po wale ho–‘i
Nothing but night

Hanau ka po
The night gave birth

Hanau Kumulipo i ka po, he kane
Born was Kumulipo in the night, a male

Hanau Po‘ele i ka po, he wahine
Born was Po‘ele in the night, a female

Hanau ka ‘Uku-ko‘ako‘a, hanau kana, he ‘Ako‘ako‘a, puka
Born was the coral polyp, born was the coral, came forth

Healthy reef in Maui, Hawaii

The Kumulipo tells us that the Ko’a, or coral polyp, was the first organism created. The Ko’a was followed by seastars, cucumbers, and urchins, each increasing in complexity. Early translators of the chant noted that the order of species closely matches the biological groupings we use today.

(Line 18) Hanau ka Pe‘a, ka Pe‘ape‘a kana keiki puka
Born was the starfish, his child the small starfish came forth

 (Line 19) Hanau ka Weli, he Weliweli kana keiki, puka
Born was the sea cucumber, his child the small sea cucumber came forth

(Line 20) Hanau ka ‘Ina, ka ‘Ina
Born was the sea urchin, the sea urchin [tribe]

olivaceous tangs Kahekili, Maui

The chant teaches us that life in the sea and life on land are inexorably connected, and what we do on land has a direct connection and impact on all organisms in the sea. Hawaiians recognize that these organisms are the building blocks for all life on this shared planet we call Honua. There is a resurgence of interest in the chant as people look for the traditional knowledge of ecological connections. The Kumulipo is always in the background of people’s minds.

(Line 35) Hanau ka ‘Aki‘aki noho i kai
Born was the tough seagrass living in the sea

 (Line 36) Kia‘i ia e ka Manienie-‘aki‘aki noho i uka
Guarded by the tough landgrass living on land

surgeonfish tell the story

It is our Kuleana (responsibility) to preserve and protect all living organisms because we all come from the same primordial beginnings– ­from the night, from the slime, from the coral polyp. These lessons of the Kumulipo are deeply integrated into our consciousness. It’s something we feel in our na’au (deep within our being). We are all related, part of one ohana (family), and it is our responsibility to care for the land under our feet, the sea around us, and our coral reefs.

You can read the entire chant with translation by Martha Warren Beckwith here.


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