The most important unit in the ancient Hawaiian system of land division was the ahupua‘a. Shaped by island geography, each ahupua‘a was a pie-shaped area of land running from the uplands to the sea, following the natural boundaries of the watershed.
Each ahupua‘a contained the resources the human community needed; salt and ocean resources, taro or sweet potato farmed on the fertile mid-lands, to koa and other trees growing in the mountain areas. The coastal boundaries were marked by an ahu, a stone foundation supporting a carved image of a pua‘a, or pig—symbolizing the payments made to the high chief of the island by the lesser chiefs or konohiki, in charge of each ahupua‘a. The ahupua‘a provided the resources to sustain a community; access to upland forest timber, lowlands for growing crops, ﬁshing and gathering along the coast.
Although there was no private ownership of property, land tenure of the maka‘ainana (commoners) was stable. They paid weekly labor taxes and annual taxes to the konohiki, or local overseer, who collected goods to support the chief and his court. The konohiki supervised communal labor within the ahupua‘a and also regulated land, water and ocean use.
Stewardship of the land and its resources was formalized through the kapu system. The kapu administered and enforced by konohiki and kahuna, or priests – placed restrictions on fishing certain species during specific seasons, on gathering and replacing certain plants, and on many aspects of social interaction as well. In this way, the community maintained a sustainable lifestyle.
Through sharing resources and constantly working within the rhythms of their natural environment, Hawaiians enjoyed abundance and a quality lifestyle with leisure time for recreation during the harvest season of the year. This lifestyle also encouraged a high level of artistic achievement. Many crafts, including Hawaiian kapa and featherwork, were the finest in the Pacific. Hawaiians devoted themselves to competitive sport and martial arts as well as expression through dance and chant, creating rich traditions that continue today.
This traditional system ended in 1848 when Kamehameha III was persuaded by foreigners to institute the Great Mahele (division), which allowed land to be bought and sold. In modern times, ahupua‘a holds both the traditional meaning and a broader one of environmentally responsible land use.
Source: Pamela Frierson