A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Site Histories, Resource Descriptions, and Management Recommendations


A. Setting

About three miles north of Kailua-Kona lies the rugged lava-covered shoreline comprising Kaloko-Honokahau National Historical Park. This area includes those lands makai of the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway (Route 19) in the ahupua'a of Kaloko and Honokahau.

map of Kaloko-Honokohau NHP
Illustration 93. Map of Kaloko-Honokokau National Historical Park, Hawai'i.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The area of broad lava fields north of Kailua-Kona resulting from volcanic flows as recent as the 1800s is called Kekaha — a name designating a dry, barren, and harsh land. This portion of the Kona Coast consists of flat open areas with scattered grasses among the convolutions of rugged lava. The jagged terrain makes foot travel almost impossible, a problem that the early Hawaiians addressed by means of painstakingly built trails. In 1823, walking northwest from Kailua toward Kaiwi Point, the missionaries Asa Thurston and Artemas Bishop noted neat houses shaded by coconut and kou trees erected on top of the lava flows along the shore. Small gardens in the few patches of soil among the rocks produced sweet potatos, watermelons, and even some tobacco. The last eruption prior to their visit had been in 1801, that outflow from Hualalai having destroyed villages, agricultural fields, and fishponds on its way to the sea, where it re-formed the coastline. [1]

The lack of rainfall in this area made large-scale agricultural production impossible, but several other advantages enabled establishment of a settlement that lasted well into the nineteenth century. These included calm seas with a shallow canoe landing area, plentiful marine resources, and a variety of plants and flowers that served medicinal and dietary needs as well as furnishing material for making fishnets and for thatching simple shelters erected on the pahoehoe and 'a'a lava flats. Cool, brackish springs provided a sufficient water supply. The use of these pools was dictated by the kapu system, which designated some of these for drinking, some for bathing, and others for washing utensils or clothes. [2]

Despite the dryness and hostility of the environment, the early inhabitants of the Kaloko-Honokahau coastal settlements devised successful adaptive methods of growing supplementary food items such as sweet potatoes and gourds upon the lava beds. The husks of dry coconuts, immersed in water until well soaked, and then placed around the plant roots provided moisture and protected against direct exposure to the harsh sun. Stone enclosures built around the plants provided support for vines, deflected the wind, and lessened the effects of the afternoon heat. [3] Archeologist Robert Renger theorized that the presence of these agricultural structures enabled a different type of adaptation to the environment in this area — one in which agricultural production along the coast supplemented both the marine resources and the products of the upland. [4]

The most important subsistence features of this shoreline, and those that imbued the area with such importance for the ancient Hawaiians, were its fishponds. Of the three structures within the park, two were originally inland bays converted into ponds by stone walls constructed across their mouths, isolating them from the sea except for controlled water movement through makaha (sluice gates). The third feature, a fishtrap, was formed by arcing a stone wall from the shoreline out to a protruding point of land.

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001