Ahupua'a: Land
Hawaiians were primarily planters of the land. By the time Captain Cook arrived in 1778, Hawaiians had developed agricultural production far beyond any of their Polynesian relatives elsewhere in the Pacific. What were their main food crops and the agricultural practices that made them so successful?

relies on The Ethnobotany of Hawaiian Taro by Isabella A. Abbot, Native Planters in Old Hawaii by E.S. Craighill Handy and Elizazbeth Green Handy, and Feathered Gods and Fishhooks by archaeologist Patrick V. Kirch, for information about Hawaiian agriculture.
Hawaiian agriculture was based on two main crop plants. The first was kalo (taro), a water loving plant of southeast Asian origin. No other Polynesian society admired kalo as a plant and source of food as much as the Hawaiians. The Marquesans were into breadfruit - the Tahitians into bananas - Hawaiians were really into kalo. It was and is the heart of their culture. In all of Polynesia, there were no extensive flat valley bottoms, so perfect for kalo cultivation, that could compare to those found in Hawai'i. (Abbot)

Photo by Sam Monet

"Kalo kanu o ka 'aina"
Taro planted on the land.
Natives on the land from generations back
''Olelo Noeau # 1447

"He kalo pa'a"
Unpounded taro.
Referring to a single man or woman.
'Olelo Noeau # 666
Second only to kalo as a crop plant was 'uala (sweet potato) - tolerant of dry conditions and capable of producing high yields, even in marginal soil. Because 'uala is of South American origin, it was once believed that Polynesians were from that area. However, our recent understanding of the voyaging skills of Polynesian explorers indicates that they acquired the plant in their travels, well before European arrival. (Kirch)
Photo by Sam Monet

"He 'uala ka 'ai ho'ola koke i ka wi."
The sweet potato is the food that ends famine quickly.
The sweet potato is a plant that matures in a few months.
'Olelo Noeau # 946

Other crop plants important to the native planter: mai'a (banana), 'ulu (breadfruit), ko (sugarcane), niu (coconut), uhi(yam). Other plants extensively cultivated were wauke (paper mulberry) for kapa, 'awa as a narcotic, ipu (gourd) for containers and musical instruments, hala for mats, and many other useful and medicinal plants. However, crop tending activities were most focused on kalo and 'uala.
(Handy and Handy)

To the right, 'awa - used as a ritual drink and as a remedy for sore muscles after a hard day of work in the lo'i (taro patch). A little 'awa, a little lomi lomi (Hawaiian massage) - aole pilikia (no problem).
Photo by Sam Monet
"Ka 'awa lena o Kali'u"
The yellowed 'awa of Kali'u.
Refers to Kali'u, Kilohana, Kaua'i.
People noticed drunken rats in the forest and discovered some very potent 'awa there.
Olelo Noeau # 1281

The earliest planters did not immediately begin construction of large irrigation systems for taro because their small population did not require intensive production. For the first few centuries following their arrival, slash and burn gardens, or shifting cultivations, were their most efficient techniques. Land early on was plentiful, and Hawaiian settlers also made extensive use of the natural food resources - native birds, fish, and shellfish. (Kirch)

Arrival painting by Herb Kane
However, in the period from A.D. 1100-1600, the Hawaiian population would grow to several hundred thousand. It was at this time that large irrigation works, dryland field cultivation, and aquaculture were developed. This period was called the Expansion Period, because the growing population, having occupied all the choice agricultural lands, had to expand into marginal areas with less agricultural resources. (Kirch)
Alekoko Fishpond wall
Photo courtesy of the Baker collection,
Kaua'i Historical Society
It was in the Expansion Period that stone- faced lo'i (pondfields) and 'auwai (irrigation channels) were built. Around the fifteenth century, the earliest loko 'ia (fishponds) were built. The native population had become large enough to provide the labor for these massive projects of agricultural intensification. (Kirch)
It was in the Expansion Period that the ahupua'a system of land management developed, along with its associated social class structure. As the population grew and the amount of available land and resources diminished, the need to divide these resources and resolve territorial boundaries increased - thus, the ahupua'a system. Residents of an ahupua'a had free access to all the resources in their ahupua'a, from mauka to makai. (Kirch)
Ahupua'a Illustration by Robin Y. Racoma

By the Expansion Period, the society had divided into a pyramid type of structure, with the mo'i (king) at the top, layers of ali'i (chiefs) below him, the konohiki (managers) in charge of the ahupua'a below them, and at the bottom the maka'ainana (common people).The maka'ainana were the real native planters, and as their name suggests, "the eyes of the land". (Handy and Handy)

At the top of the pyramid, ali'i nui Kamehameha I. 1816 pen and water color by Louis Choris - The Honolulu Academy of Arts
In return for their use of the land, the maka'ainana owed the upper layers of chiefs labor, loyalty, and a share of their agricultural product . All rights to the land were with the ali'i, and the ali'i could gain or lose power with a turnover in chiefs above them. Changes in upper level ali'i rarely affected the native planters because the maka'ainana who faithfully cultivated the land were valuable to whoever was in power. (Handy and Handy)
Once constructed, Hawaiian irrigation systems did not require much management. However, these systems produced high yields for the labor invested.(Kirch) How did the native planters view and manage their water resources?
Created June 2001