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Hawaiian Language, Weather and Culture

The Ahupua`a System

When Polynesian settlers first set their eyes upon the Hawaiians Islands 1700 years ago, one can only imagine the thoughts that raced through their minds. No doubt they marveled at the majestic beauty of the island’s coastlines and mountains, stunned that they had come across such islands in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away from the nearest landmass.


As they explored the islands, however, another question likely came creeping in: “How are we going to survive?” The settlers knew that whomever decided to stay on the islands would need to devise a method of self-sufficiency unique to the island’s geography and isolation.


While most of Earth’s people at the time had vast expanses of land and animals to choose from, the Polynesians were extremely limited, and therefore had no choice but to be both creative and provident. The result? The ahupua`a system.

The ahupua`a system consisted of dividing the mokupuni (islands) into moku (wedges of land) stretching from mountaintops down to the coastline. These moku were further split into ahupua`a (smaller wedges) and ruled by an ali`i, or chief. Each ahupua`a provided everything the native Hawaiians needed to survive, whether it be fish from the sea, fertile soil to plant taro, or koa and other trees to craft into buildings, canoes, and tools. To ensure proper stewardship of these lands, konohiki (overseers) were assigned to watch over the moku’s operations and retrieve weekly and yearly taxes from the land’s inhabitants for the ali`i.


Over time, this stewardship was formalized through the kapu system, which placed restrictions such as limited fishing in certain locations and the gathering and replacing of plants. The system’s division of labor effectively produced enough to sustain entire communities of Hawaiian people for generations, and simultaneously allowed for a relatively high quality of life. In their spare time, Hawaiians devoted themselves to arts and crafts, competitive sport, martial arts, and dance and chant, creating many rich traditions that continue to thrive today.

Over the course of its existence, the ahupua`a system was refined and optimized, providing the core foundation for the Hawaiian people to prosper as a developing nation for over a thousand years. Many things contributed to the system’s success, but one component is impossible to overlook: symbiosis. Ancient Hawaiians understood that each and every element of their ecosystem was interconnected. How much they took from the forest influenced how much food could be grown, and vice versa. The land affected the sea, and the sea the land. It was only with respect for this fact that proper stewardship could ensue.

Information courtesy of Kaunamano Farm. Learn more about sustainable Hawaiian agriculture and purchase their products for yourself. They ship!

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