A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Overview of Hawaiian Prehistory


E. Major Aspects of Traditional Hawaiian Culture (continued)

5. Economic System

     a) Summary of Change in the Economic Structure

Originally Hawaiian land units were semi-independent chiefdoms whose inhabitants were related by bonds of kinship and whose chiefs were senior relatives in a corporate descent group. This ancestral Polynesian social and land-tenure system existed while the population concentrated along the coast but changed radically during the pre-contact years as the population expanded inland. At that time the pattern of economic exploitation changed from the coastal zone to a coastal-inland axis. With the formation of self-sufficient ahupua'a, kinship ties slowly disintegrated and the gap between chief and commoner widened. The highest chiefs, at the tip of a hierarchical pyramid, gained sole stewardship of the land, while the commoners, who had no ownership rights and worked the land, formed the broad supporting base. Competition among chiefs over control of productivity led to formation of socio-political boundaries through force. Power rather than kinship determined control and led to the formation of the Hawai'i emergent state. [112]

     b) Competition for Resources Increases

According to the native Historian Samuel Kamakau, no formal division of land existed in ancient Hawai'i while the population figures remained low. Holdings depended upon possession and use. As the number of inhabitants increased, however, a need arose for apportioning the land equally, and formal land divisions were established. [113] While arable land, water, and other resources were plentiful and kinship groups dominated the social system, land could peacefully be held in common, with possession and use deciding rights. As the population increased, however, and resources became less plentiful, competition for them also increased. Intensification of agricultural activities, with the resultant labor involved in constructing irrigation systems, aquacultural facilities, and dryland field and wet taro systems to support a larger population, increased the value of certain land parcels, making them very appealing to the growing ranks of rival chieftains. [114]

The establishment of a formal and rather elaborate land tenure system, then, based upon an investment of labor implying ownership in land and permanence of settlement and improvements, resulted from the expansion of settlement inland from the coast, an increase in population, the intensification of agricultural activities to ensure maximum productivity, and intergroup competition for resources. Ultimately politics and the extension of chiefly powers through landownership and personal aggrandizement promoted the growth of feudalism. The growing necessity for personal protection caused lesser chiefs and commoners to attach themselves to a high chief who afforded protection in return for service and a portion of the resources of the land. One by one, smaller chiefdoms allied themselves with more powerful chiefs for security against rising warrior chiefs until finally each island came under the control of a high chief, all of whom finally came under the sovereignty of Kamehameha. [115]

     c) Land Divisions

Each of the Hawaiian Islands supported several environmental zones or exploitation areas. Initial occupation during the colonization period was of the deep sea and inshore zone, which provided fish, marine food animals, seaweed, and salt. Food crops grown along the shoreline or coastal flat on which homes were built included coconut palms, sweet potatoes, and sometimes breadfruit trees. Between this shoreline habitation zone and the forest belt lay the kula, or open country slopes. In many leeward areas, the lower portion of the kula consisted of a broad, arid expanse where little cultivation was possible. On the island of Hawai'i, this zone consists of bare lava with scattered soil patches on which small numbers of sweet potatoes and gourds could be grown. Inland from this area lies the upper kula, whose greater rainfall creates well-developed soils that allow cultivation of extensive fields of sweet potatoes, dry taro, paper mulberry, and sugar cane. Crops of the upper kula mostly grew in isolated plots separated by unimproved land or fallow fields. The forest above the upper kula agricultural zone provided timber for making canoes, house frames, weapons and utensils, and craft items. Bananas were grown along the lower forest margins, and sometimes small plots in the middle of the forest were planted in taro. The forest also provided wild plants that supplemented the Hawaiian diet. [116]

Prior to European contact, each of the major islands or independent chiefdoms in the Hawaiian chain comprised a mokupuni. Each island was divided into major districts, or moku, administered by high-ranking chiefs. They were either relatives of the high chief of the island, trusted supporters, or high ranking individuals who pledged their support to the high chief but were allowed to remain relatively independent. In ancient Hawai'i, land division and the resulting economic system reflected both geographic conditions of the environment and characteristics of the social organization of the people. The land pattern established in Hawai'i was based on the wedge-shaped land divisions typical of mountainous islands in Polynesia. These divisions (ahupua'a) radiated from the interior uplands, down through deep valleys, and past the shoreline into the sea. [117] They became the basic unit of the Hawaiian socio-economic organization (Illustration 8). This type of land division allowed exploitation of all the resource zones of the island — forests, agricultural land, shoreline, and ocean — by a single socio-political group and guaranteed them some degree of self-sufficiency and economic independence. These zones provided fish; taro fields; logs for firewood, ridgepoles, and canoes; bark for kapa cloth; and bird feathers for cloaks and helmets. They represented a continuous range of environmental conditions in terms of rainfall, soils, and species of vegetation, provided diverse natural products, and supported a variety of crops and domestic animals. The boundaries of these land divisions, each of which had a specific name, were determined by topographical features, such as ridges and streambeds, rather than by artificial delineations. Initially, as in other Polynesian systems, kinship-based corporate descent groups occupied these divisions. In Hawai'i, however, this system of land tenure eventually developed into a local variant that was much more politically based. The determination of socio-political boundaries by the exercise of power rather than through kinship ties is a formulative characteristic of emergent states. [118]

sketch map
Illustration 8. The ahupua'a of the ancient Hawaiian land system. Figure 2 in Kirch,Feathered Gods and Fishhooks, p. 4.

All of the resources within this strip were restricted to use by its inhabitants. The name derives from ahu, an altar erected at the intersection of the land division boundary with the main road around the island, and pua'a, a pig, represented by a carved wooden image of a hog's head placed on the altar. Because a pig was an acceptable tribute, it represented any tribute-in-kind. Residents deposited gifts at this site each year during the annual harvest festival (Makahiki). The size of the ahupua'a varied, the larger ones on the island of Hawai'i being located in the interior.

The ahupua'a were often divided into 'ili ('ili'aina), long, narrow strips of land running lengthwise along the ahupua'a that could be discontinuous, or 'ili lele (jump strips), which comprised one segment near the ocean and another in the uplands or on the plains, continuing the ahupua'a rule of equitable land division but on a smaller scale. These were portions of ahupua'a land allotted to the families who lived on them and cultivated them. The right to continue to use and cultivate these stayed with the 'ohana (extended families) living on them regardless of any transfer of title to the ahupua'a. The 'ili was a land division, the ahupua'a a tax unit. Long strips of arable land within an 'ili were called mo'o (strips). There were in addition smaller land divisions comprising special plots of cultivated land. [119]

Rights to irrigation water and fishing areas, considered very valuable economic assets, were strictly controlled within an ahupua'a. Water rights were codified to assure the equitable distribution of free-flowing waters for irrigation. Inshore fishing rights were explicitly stated. Normally only members of an 'ohana had rights to exploit specific water areas of the 'ohana lands. These rights usually included the inshore waters out as far as a man could stand upright with his head above water. A chief or konohiki, however, could place kapu on the use of certain types of fish and other marine resources at certain times or by certain people. [120]

     d) Sharing

The Hawaiian economic system functioned within the context of these land divisions and within the concepts of certain social relationships. Research to date indicates that large-scale trade between districts was not a major aspect of the Hawaiian pre-contact economic system. Because of the diversity of environments and products available within each ahupua'a, they were probably fairly self-sufficient, providing not only necessary resources for its inhabitants, but also enough to contribute to the political hierarchy. [121]

Effective economic distribution of goods and services within an ahupua'a was accomplished by sharing and mutual cooperation. This type of socio-economic system, providing a means for resource distribution between the upland and coastal exploitation zones, was most effectively accomplished within a family organization, where ties of kinship dictated sharing of the resources of the family land (Illustration 9). The fundamental social unit in Hawaiian culture was the dispersed community of 'ohana mentioned above — relatives by blood, marriage, or adoption — some living inland and some near the sea in a geographical locality to which they were tied by ancestry or sentiment. The functional unit within the 'ohana was the household, including the immediate family as well as unrelated dependents. Between households within the 'ohana constant sharing and exchange of food, articles, and services occurred. Those households living inland raising taro, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, bananas, and kapa, and needing coconuts, salt, and marine foods, would take a gift to a 'ohana household living near the sea and receive in return fish or other needed items. The 'ohana constituted the community within which the economic life of Hawai'i centered. This constant circulation of food products and services within the land area controlled by a family became the basis of the ahupua'a land division economic system. [122]

sketch map
Illustration 9. Traditional Hawaiian land use pattern. From Draft Environmental Statement, Proposed Ka-loko, Hono-ko-hau National Cultural Park, p. 57.

     e) Tribute

The right of the commoners to live on the land and cultivate it, instead of naturally resulting from membership in a corporate descent group as in their ancestral homeland, depended on the regular payment of labor and tribute, or "offerings," to the "god-descended" chiefs at the top of the social scale. In this system, farmers and fishermen, for example, were required to offer a specific share of their labor and their yield to the chiefs, who in return ritually interceded with the appropriate deities to assure peace and plenty. [123]

The economy of ancient Hawai'i was closely interwoven with the political system, creating a vertical economic structure. The ruler of each independent chiefdom controlled the use rights to all lands and products in his kingdom; as a group, therefore, these chiefs controlled the economic organization of the islands at the state level. They supported themselves and their retinue through two annual Makahiki rituals, during which time taxes in the form of produce and personal property were gathered. One collection was made for the political hierarchy, others for the religious specialists and members of the chief's court. The chief could also levy special assessments at any time. In return, the commoners expected intercession with the gods on their behalf and on behalf of their fishing and farming endeavors, prosperity, protection in time of war, and the benefit of major public works such as religious temples, field systems, and fishponds. [124]

The levy of the ali'i during the tribute collection of the Makahiki festival fell on the 'ohana rather than on individuals or single households. [125] The tax levy per family was based on its ability to pay, taking into account the type and extent of holdings and the size of the family. The konohiki, as the absentee chief's resident land manager, collected the taxes. Because Hawaiians were not bound to the land on which they lived, they could move elsewhere if the konohiki became too oppressive. This tended to prevent too frequent levies. Taxes included food items, such as pigs, taro, potatoes, dogs, and vegetables, and personal goods, such as bird feathers, rope, fishing nets, fishhooks, tools, bark cloth, and mats. These latter items were collected only once a year, at Makahiki time, whereas animal and produce items were on call as needed. Actually because the chief upon whose lands they lived owned all the land and resources in an ahupua'a, in a sense the tenants were only giving these resources to the rightful owner, in a useful form and upon demand, on a gift-tax basis. [126] He kept a part and passed the rest on to the chief to whom he owed allegiance and so on up to the ruling chief, who distributed the goods to support himself and all the members of his household, including his retainers, specialists, priests, and political advisers, who in turn supported their families on these bounties.

The annual harvest festival of Makahiki was the most important Hawaiian religious festival, lasting from October until February. During the first part of the celebration, work and war were kapu. At this time activities focused on recognizing and sanctioning the position held by the chiefs and priests within the total Hawaiian social structure. During the course of the year each household had produced the extra items required for presentation to the chief during this festival. At a designated time, the people of each land division carried those offerings to altars established at the point where the main trail around the island crossed the border of their ahupua'a. These were symbolic offerings to Lono, god of peace and agriculture, whose image was transported around the islands by the priests and high chief to acknowledge the offerings. When the circuit was completed, the kapu was lifted and the period of feasts and merrymaking started, marking the completion of the year's agricultural labors. The Makahiki ceremony symbolized an important aspect of the Hawaiian economy — the fact that the maka'ainana were both able and required to produce a surplus for the support of an economically non-productive chief and priest class. The ceremony would also have particular significance in relation to the arrival of Captain Cook in Hawai'i. [127]

Because the prestige and mana of the chiefs depended upon their ability to mobilize labor and exact tribute, pressure from the top of the pyramid was constant for more intensive economic development to keep the infrastructure intact. A rapidly increasing population and the resultant growing labor base made this intensification possible. With a wealth of available agricultural lands supporting plentiful natural resources, population growth rates during the period from A.D. 600-1100 continued to be high. Conversely, as the infrastructure developed, these larger populations could be supported. The limits to this growth depended on the changes and alterations made to the island environment. This self-perpetuating cycle could continue only if certain management controls were exerted on the Hawaiian ecosystem. [128]

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001