Monday, June 18, 2012

Ahupuaʻa – Hawaiian Land Management System

In ancient Hawai‘i, most of the common people were farmers, a few were fishermen.  Tenants cultivated smaller crops for family consumption, to supply the needs of chiefs and provide tributes.

Kapu (restrictions/prohibitions) were observed as a matter of resource and land management, among other things.

Access to resources was tied to residency and earned as a result of taking responsibility to steward the environment and supply the needs of aliʻi.

The social structure reinforced land management.

Dwellings were thatched structures designed primarily for protection against inclement weather.  Floors of the houses were raised platforms of lava rock, with small pebble layers.  Pili grass was strewn about and all of this was covered with woven lauhala mats.  Most activities (i.e. cooking and eating) took place outdoors.

The traditional land use in the Hawaiian Islands evolved from shifting cultivation into a stable form of agriculture.  Stabilization required a new form of land use and eventually the ahupua‘a form of land management was instituted.

For hundreds of years since, on the death of all mō‘ī (kings or queens), the new ruler re-divided the land, giving control of it to his or her favorite chiefs.

Each ahupuaʻa in turn was ruled by a lower chief, or aliʻi ʻai.  He, in turn, appointed an overseer, or konohiki.  (The common people never owned or ruled land.)

The konohiki served as general manager responsible for the use of an ahupuaʻa as a resource system.  He, in turn, was assisted by specialists, or luna.  For example, the luna wai was responsible for the fresh water flow and irrigation system.

Ahupuaʻa served as a means of managing people and taking care of the people who support them, as well as an easy form of collection of tributes by the chiefs.  Ultimately, this helped in preserving resources.

Shaped by island geography, ahupuaʻa varied in shape and size (from as little as 100-acres to more than 100,000-acres.)

A typical ahupuaʻa (what we generally refer to as watersheds, today) was a long strip of land, narrow at its mountain summit top and becoming wider as it ran down a valley into the sea to the outer edge of the reef.  If there was no reef then the sea boundary would be about one and a half miles from the shore.  

Each ahupuaʻa had its own name and boundary lines.  Often the markers were natural features such as a large rock or a line of trees or even the home of a certain bird.  A valley ahupuaʻa usually used its ridges and peaks as boundaries. 

Additional markers were placed to note the ahupua‘a boundary - so called because the boundary was marked by a heap (ahu) of stones surmounted by an image of a pig (pua‘a,) or because a pig or other tribute was laid on the altar as tax to the chief.

People living in one ahupuaʻa were free to use whatever grew wild in that ahupuaʻa.  But a resident of one ahupuaʻa could not take anything from another ahupuaʻa. Boundaries were important and people carefully learned their locations.

In ancient Hawaiian times, relatives and friends exchanged products.  The upland dwellers brought poi, taro and other foods to the shore to give to kinsmen there.  The shore dweller gave fish and other seafood.  Visits were never made empty-handed but always with something from one's home to give.

Ahupuaʻa contained nearly all the resources Hawaiians required for survival.  Fresh water resources were managed carefully for drinking, bathing and irrigation.

Wild and cultivated plants provided food, clothing, household goods, canoes, weapons and countless other useful products.  Many land and sea creatures utilized for food also provided bones, teeth, skin and feathers for tools, crafts and ornamentation.

Trees for canoes, house building, idols, etc came from the forest zone.  Below the forest, in the Upland area, bamboo, ti and pili grass for thatching houses and were collected.

Within the coastal area and valleys, taro was cultivated in lo‘i; sweet potato, coconut, sugar cane and other food sources thrived in these areas.  The shore and reefs provided fish, shellfish and seaweed.

(Image: Ahupua‘a model after Luciano Minerbi 1999, slightly modified.  (Mueller-Dombois))  In addition, I have placed older USGS maps (each noting ahupua‘a on respective islands) on my Linked In page (you may have to sign in to LinkedIn - - go to the bottom of the Profile for the folders to see/download respective maps.)

In preparing the Corridor Management Plan for the Scenic Byway on Aliʻi Drive, we recommended that ahupua‘a markers be placed along the corridor to note the historic land divisions.  We are recommending the same at Kōloa, Kaua‘i for the Plan we are working on there.

In addition, I posted some recent attempts of modern representations of ancient ahupua‘a boundary markers in parts of the State (primarily Ko‘olaupoko on O‘ahu and Keauhou on Hawai‘i Island.)  These are in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook page.

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