The Ahupuaʻa

When James Cook made landfall on the island of Hawai‘i in 1778, he found a society ruled by the king Kalani‘ōpu‘u. Within this kingdom were six political districts, or moku, each with its own ruling nobility: Kohala, Hāmākua, Hilo, Puna, Ka‘ū, and Kona. These moku were subdivided into numerous ahupua‘a, named land sections that were the basic units of agricultural production and the home to the great majority of makaʻāinana, the commoners who farmed the land.

 
Map showing the division of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park into districts and ahupuaʻa
The division of districts and ahupuaʻa in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (adapted from the National Park Service publication "In the Realm of  Pele-honua-mea" by M.J. Tomonari-Tuggle)
 

Most of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park falls in portions of two of the traditional districts of the island of Hawai‘i: Puna and Ka‘ū. The park encompasses all or a large portion of four ahupua‘a of Ka‘ū district, including the high altitude areas of Mauna Loa and Kīlauea volcanoes. It includes ten ahupua‘a in southwestern coastal Puna district.

Ahupuaʻa were usually roughly triangular parcels, with a narrow top at higher elevations and a wider base at the ocean. They extended from mountain to sea (mauka to makai) and generally were organized to provide the variety of resources that a comunity needed. This includes fish and salt from the sea, agricultural land necessary for farming taro and sweet potato, and forested areas for timber and bird collection.

The size and borders of these divisions depended on the availability of those resources within them. Ahupuaʻa that were poorer in resources may have a larger area to compensate. For example, Kahuku, with its harsh lava fields on southern slopes of Mauna Loa, was the largest in Hawaii with over 184,000 acres.

The word ahupuaʻa itself is a combination of two Hawaiian words, ahu (a pile of stones) and puaʻa (pig). This is because the boundaries of the divisions were often marked with a mound of rocks topped by an image of a pig, perhaps in the form of a wood carving. In other cases, the boundary of an ahupuaʻa was simply a natural feature such as a ridge or rock outcropping.

Last updated: February 18, 2021

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