Folks describe different ‘phases’ or ‘periods’ of human settlement and agricultural development in the Islands over time. Different people use different terms for each of these (some use varying timeframes, as well,) but they seem to generally fall into Settlement, Development, Expansion and ultimately Post-Contact.
Settlement – AD 1000-1400
It is believed that initial Polynesian discovery and settlement of the Hawaiian Islands occurred between approximately AD 1000 and 1200. (Kirch) This effectively started the ‘Settlement’ phase.
For generations, the small, slowly growing population clustered around shore sites near streams that supplied them with water. Such sites are best for inshore fishing.
The food plants of Hawaiʻi can be divided into three groups: those known as staple foods (the principal starchy foods – kalo (taro,) ʻuala (sweet potato,) ʻulu (breadfruit,) etc;) those of less importance (to add nutrients and variety to the diet;) and those known as famine foods. (Krauss)
Kamakau states that there were no chiefs in the earliest period of settlement but that they came “several hundred years afterward … when men became numerous.”
Development- AD 1400-1650
Archaeological evidence indicates a chronology of household expansion (and, by inference, to population growth, as well as increased managerial presence and a desire to produce higher yields) starting about this time. The Islands evolved from shifting cultivation into a stable form of agriculture. Likewise, a formalization of governance was taking shape.
Dr Marion Kelly noted there were three main technological advances resulting in food production intensification that started to evolve: (a) loko i‘a, walled fishponds, (b) lo‘i, terraced pondfields with their irrigation systems and (c) systematic dry-land field cultivation organized by vegetation zones.
In addition, this movement toward a centralization of government allowed for development and maintenance of large projects, such as irrigation systems, large taro loʻi, large fish ponds, heiau and trails.
Expansion – AD 1650-Contact (1778)
A population peak (usually estimated at several hundred thousand) was reached around 1650 AD, more than 100 years before contact with Europeans.
It was at this population peak, or shortly before, that Hawaiians began to inhabit less favorable coastline areas and barren zones between the coast and upland agricultural sites and to develop extensive dryland agricultural systems in marginal regions. (Cuddihy)
Large-scale irrigation works and permanent field systems were developed during the expansion period. Settlements were intruding into increasingly marginal environments, including the interiors of leeward valleys and the higher elevation slopes. Population densities in the fertile windward valleys increased, although densities in tablelands and elsewhere were much lower.
Post Contact – After 1778
At the time of Captain Cook’s arrival (1778-1779), the Hawaiian Islands were divided into four chiefdoms: (1) the island of Hawaiʻi under the rule of Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who also had possession of the Hāna district of east Maui; (2) Maui (except the Hāna district,) Molokai, Lānaʻi and Kahoʻolawe, ruled by Kahekili; (3) Oʻahu, under the rule of Kahahana; and (4) Kauai and Niʻihau, Kamakahelei was ruler.
It was not necessarily a peaceful time. Island rulers, Aliʻi or Mōʻī, typically ascended to power through familial succession and warfare. In those wars, Hawaiians were killing Hawaiians; sometimes the rivalries pitted members of the same family against each other.
In addition to deaths in wars, epidemics of infections added to the decline in Hawaiʻi’s population from approximately 300,000 at the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 to 135,000 in 1820 and 53,900 in 1876.
The Islands at the Time of Columbus (During the Development Phase – AD 1400-1650)
At about the time Christopher Columbus was crossing the Atlantic to America (1492 – he was looking for an alternate trade route to the East Indies,) exciting stuff was happening in the Hawaiian Islands.
The political governance and land management system by Aliʻi-ai-moku, was expanding and developing after two centuries since its inception, and there was a wake of progress taking place on our shores.
In this general timeframe, and not necessarily contemporaries, the Aliʻi-ai-moku (Island rulers) across the chain were: Mā‘ilikūkahi on Oʻahu, Piʻilani on Maui, ʻUmi-a-Līloa on Hawaiʻi and Kukona on Kauaʻi.
Māʻilikūkahi – Oʻahu
Soon after becoming aliʻi, Māʻilikūkahi moved to Waikīkī. He was probably one of the first chiefs to live there. Up until this time Oʻahu chiefs had typically lived at Waialua and ‘Ewa. From that point on, with few exceptions, Waikīkī remained the Royal Center of Oʻahu aliʻi, until Kamehameha I moved the seat to Honolulu.
Māʻilikūkahi is noted for clearly marking and reorganizing land division palena (boundaries) on O‘ahu. Defined palena brought greater productivity to the lands; lessened conflict and was a means of settling disputes of future aliʻi who would be in control of the bounded lands; protected the commoners from the chiefs; and brought (for the most part) peace and prosperity.
What is commonly referred to as the ‘ahupuaʻa system’ is a result of the firm establishment of palena (boundaries.) Ahupuaʻa served as a means of managing people and taking care of the people who support them, as well as an easy form of collection of tributes by the chiefs.
Piʻilani – Maui
According to oral tradition, Piʻilani unified the entire island of Maui, bringing together under one rule the formerly-competing eastern (Hāna) and western (Wailuku) multi-district kingdoms of the Island. Chief Piʻilani (“stairway to heaven”) unified West Maui and ruled in peace and prosperity. His territory included Nā Hono a Pi‘ilani, the six West Maui bays, a place he frequented.
Piʻilani’s prosperity was exemplified by a boom in agriculture and construction of heiau, fishponds, trails and irrigation systems. Famed for his energy and intelligence, Piʻilani constructed the West Maui phase of the noted Alaloa, or long trail (also known as the King’s Highway.)
His son, Kihapiʻilani laid the East Maui section and connected the island. This trail was the only ancient pathway to encircle any Hawaiian island (not only along the coast, but also up the Kaupō Gap and through the summit area and crater of Haleakalā.)
ʻUmi – Hawaiʻi Island
ʻUmi-a-Līloa (ʻUmi) from Waipiʻo, son of Līloa, defeated Kona chief Ehunuikaimalino and united the island of Hawai‘i. He then moved his Royal Center from Waipi‘o to Kona. At about the time of ʻUmi, a significant new form of agriculture was developed in Kona; he is credited with starting it. Today, archaeologists call the unique method of farming in this area the ‘Kona Field System.’
The Kona Field System was planted in long, narrow fields that ran across the contours, along the slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualālai. This intensive agricultural activity changed farming and agricultural production on the western side of Hawai’i Island; the Kona field system was quite large, extending from Kailua to south of Honaunau
The Kona Field System was described as “the most monumental work of the ancient Hawaiians.” The challenge of farming in Kona is to produce a flourishing agricultural economy in an area subject to frequent droughts, with no lakes or streams for irrigation.
Kukona – Kauai
Kukona became a symbol of the very highest ideals of chivalry in battle, was born in Kōloa and fought his defining battle at Poʻipū.
During the 15th century, an ambitious chief of Hawaiʻi who had already conquered three other islands, tried to seize Kauaʻi. He was accompanied into battle by the combined armies and chiefs of Maui, Molokai and Oʻahu. The war is known as the War of Ka‐welewele. The much smaller forces defending Kauaʻi, led by Kukona and his son Manokalanipo, soundly defeated the invaders after leading them inland and then surrounding them at the shore.
Kukona captured all four chiefs of Hawaiʻi, Oʻahu, Maui and Molokai. He had the opportunity to kill them all and assume leadership over the islands. However, he preferred peace and allowed them to return safely home with a promise that they never again make war on Kauaʻi. This peace lasted for four hundred years.
What about Puna?
The Islands were at peace, the population was growing and new intensified means of feeding the subsistence society were being developed. However, in Puna, there was a disturbance in the forest …
The longest recorded eruption at Kīlauea, arguably, was the ʻAilāʻau eruption and lava flow in the 15th century, which may be memorialized in the Pele-Hiʻiaka chant. It was the largest in Hawaiʻi in more than 1,000-years.
The flow was named after ʻAilāʻau, who was known and feared by all the people. ʻAi means the “one who eats or devours.” Lāʻau means “tree” or a “forest.” (He was the fire god before Pele arrived at Hawaiʻi Island.)
The eruption probably lasted about 60 years, ending around 1470. This large volume of lava covered a huge area, about 166 square miles (over 106,000-acres) – larger than the Island of Lānaʻi.
From the summit of the ʻAilāʻau shield, pāhoehoe lava flowed 25-miles northeastward, making it all the way to the coast. Lava covered all, or most, of what are now Mauna Loa Estates, Royal Hawaiian Estates, Hawaiian Orchid Island Estates, Fern Forest Vacation Estates, Eden Rock Estates, Crescent Acres, Hawaiian Acres, Orchid Land Estates, ʻAinaloa, Hawaiian Paradise Park and Hawaiian Beaches. (USGS)
Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death
There is a new disturbance in the forest …
Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death is posing the greatest threat to Hawai‘i’s native forests. A newly identified disease has killed large numbers of mature ʻōhiʻa trees in forests and residential areas of the Puna, Hilo and Kona Districts of Hawaiʻi Island.
The disease affects non-contiguous forest stands ranging from 1 to 100 acres. Approximately 6,000 acres from Kalapana to Hilo on Hawaiʻi Island had been affected with stand showing greater than 50% mortality. The disease has not yet been reported on any of the other Hawaiian Islands.
Recent investigation indicates that the pathogen progresses up the stem of the tree. Trees within a given stand appear to die in a haphazard pattern; the disease does not appear to radiate out from already infected or dead trees. Within two to three years nearly 100% of trees in a stand succumb to the disease.
Currently, there is no effective treatment to protect ʻōhiʻa trees from becoming infected or cure trees that exhibit symptoms of the disease. To reduce the spread, people should not transport parts of affected ʻōhiʻa trees to other areas. The pathogen may remain viable for over a year in dead wood.
UH scientists are working to protect and preserve this keystone tree in Hawaiʻi’s native forest. However, the reality remains, there is a possibility that the ‘ōhi‘a population on Hawai‘i Island may be lost to Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death (Lots of information here is from Abbott and CTAHR.)