Molokai Island can be divided into three ecological regions based on rainfall, exposure to northeast trade winds and landform: (1) the wet, windward valleys of the north shore, (2) the dry, leeward valleys of the south shore, and (3) the arid rocklands of the island’s west end.
The Kalaupapa Peninsula, located at the western end of these valleys, is a unique landform formed by a volcanic rejuvenation centered on the Kauhakō Crater (about 330-thousand years ago,) at the base of the north shore’s cliffs.
Archaeological and carbon-dating evidence indicate that the initial settlement and presence of people on the Kalaupapa (“the flat plain”) peninsula on the Island of Molokai was between 800 and 1200.
Next to the peninsula is a distinctly-different, wet ecological zone with sediment soils distributed at the bottoms of the short Waihānau and Wai‘ale‘ia Valleys, the large Waikolu Valley and along the base of the cliffs.
Based on archaeological studies, the northern portion of the peninsula has “two main types of agricultural complexes … alignments with enclosures around them, and alignments without enclosures”. The density of plots within the later type suggested “possible intensification of an earlier field system”.
Identified as the Kalaupapa Field System, there is a grid of rain-fed plots, defined by low stone field walls built, in part, to shelter sweet potatoes and other crops from trade winds, that cover the Kalaupapa Peninsula.
It appears that the field system was a secondary area of settlement and agricultural development, with the wetter valley and sediment soil being the preferred areas.
Like other windward areas, wind erosion is a problem. To address this, long, narrow linear plots (defined by low field walls,) are packed densely together in locations exposed to the northeast trade winds. In addition, plots were in swales between boulder outcrops.
Initial theories suggested the entire field system was primarily the result of a historic boom in the production of potatoes for “gold rush” markets in California.
Recent work by various teams of archaeologists, which included surveys in different ecological zones – specifically, the peninsula and several valleys – revealed a well-preserved archaeological landscape across the region.
Instead of enclosed fields associated with the more recent historic era, archaeologists found dense rows of unenclosed alignments and substantial house sites quite unlike the temporary shelters found in other Hawaiian field systems.
The findings suggest that early agricultural development in the area started well before the “gold rush” exports and was first concentrated in valleys (with permanent streams) and, perhaps more significantly, that most of the Kalaupapa Field System was likely to have been built before European contact.
Although limited cultivation in dryland environments may have begun as early as 1200 and continued through the 13th century, widespread burning across the Kalaupapa Peninsula, which archaeologists suggest signals of the beginning of the Kalaupapa Field System, does not commence until 1450-1550.
It appears that not only is there a correlation between rich, geologically young soils and Hawaiian dryland intensive agricultural systems, but also the creation of these large-scale systems around 1400 appears to have been nearly simultaneous in both windward and leeward districts.
Then, between 1650 and 1795, there were increases in the peninsula population, indicated by house sites, rock shelters, an animal enclosure, a possible shrine and a site interpreted as a men’s house (mua.)
In terms of agriculture, there is good evidence that people continued to actively cultivate the entire area throughout this period.
Following the abandonment of the field system at the end of the 18th century, settlement shifted to small house sites spread along the coast and local roadways.
The introduction of cattle in 1830 caused the construction of large, architecturally-distinct walls to protect fields and yards from roving animals.
In 1849, portions of the fields were reactivated and intensified to supply potatoes and other crops to California’s “gold rush” markets.
The Kingdom of Hawaiʻi instituted in 1865 a century-long program of segregation and isolation of patients with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) and patients were banished to the isolated peninsula of Kalaupapa, displacing resident families.