‘Āina as the term for homeland identified the Hawaiian as a food producer. The word is compounded from the verb ‘ai, to eat, referring specifically to vegetable foods, with the substantive suffix na, which makes it a noun. The word ‘āina, then, means ‘that which feeds.’
Using stratigraphic archaeology and refinements in radiocarbon dating, studies suggest it was about 900-1000 AD that “Polynesian explorers first made their remarkable voyage from central Eastern Polynesia Islands, across the doldrums and into the North Pacific, to discover Hawai‘i.” (Kirch)
When the first colonists reached Hawai‘i they found along the shores a flora with which they were familiar in tropical Polynesia: beach morning glory or pohuehue, naupaka, hau, milo and kamani.
The rich valley bottoms which later they would clear, terrace, and irrigate for wet-taro cultivation were, in their pristine state, dense jungle, probably covered mostly with the hau shrub which, where it runs wild, produces a dense, tight jungle. For this jungle the first settlers had no use.
What taro tops they had, they planted along the banks of the streams, as taro is still planted along the banks of irrigation and drainage ditches. If they had sweet-potato shoots, these were planted in sandy soil near their huts.
It is more likely, however, that the first settlers had little or nothing to plant. The plants and more colonists were probably brought by canoes sent back to the homeland.
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.
In the course of native settlement, as the early kanaka colonizers spread from fishing sites on the shore to inland areas and fanned out over the plains and hills from original centers of settlement, households with ties of relationship became scattered.
Some located on upland slopes (ko kula uka,) some on the plains toward the sea (ko kula kai) and some along the shore (ko kaha kai.) Neighborly interdependence, the sharing of goods and services, naturally resulted in the settling of contiguous lands by a given ‘ohana rather than in a scattering over an entire district.
When they had acquired taro, they no doubt rapidly cleared away the jungle along the streams to make room for taro patches, and there was a beginning of terraced flats that could be irrigated directly from the stream.
Fishermen and their families living around the bays and the beaches, or at isolated localities along the coast where fishing was practicable, led a life that was materially simpler than that of planters who dwelt on the plains.
Once they had discovered the great koa trees in the uplands, they were in a position to build large voyaging canoes, and it would take only a few men to sail these back in the direction of the Society Islands, or to the Marquesas, Samoa or Tonga.
Later, Polynesians brought with them shoots, roots, cuttings and seeds of various plants for food, cordage, medicine, fabric, containers, all of life’s vital needs. “Canoe crops” (Canoe Plants) is a term to describe the group of plants brought to Hawaiʻi by these early Polynesians.
“The people had ample cultivable land in the moist upland from two to four miles inland at altitudes of one thousand to twenty-five hundred feet. … The soil is most fertile, being formed from the decay of recent lava flows.”
“There the natives found their chief means of subsistence, and, in good seasons, were sufficiently fed. In bad seasons there were droughts, and more or less of ‘wī,’ or famine.” (Bishop)
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)
Eventually, most of the makaʻāinana (‘common people’) were farmers, a few were fishermen. Tenants cultivated smaller crops for family consumption, to supply the needs of chiefs and provide tributes.
There was a high degree of stability or permanence of tenure despite the general turnover of authority and titles to the land whenever a new aliʻi came into power, owing to the fact that particular ‘ohana enjoyed the rights of occupancy and use and faithfully fulfilled their obligations.
In many cases their ancestors had pioneered the area and cultivated it since the earliest era of Hawaiian settlement. (Lots of information here is from Handy, Handy & Pukui.)