The Hawaiians called it Nāholokū, ‘The Cloak.’ It was a great fan of young lava with high nutrient content, combined with ideal climate conditions that provided the environmental potential for intensive agricultural production. Folks today refer to it a Kaupō Gap.
“Kaupō has been famous for its sweet potatoes, both in ancient times and in recent years. Sweet potatoes can be cultivated from sea level up to about 2,000 feet in the rich pulverized lava of this district. This old culture is unfortunately vanishing here, due to a combination of economic and climatic circumstances.”
“(T)he sweet potato was the staple food for a considerable population, supplemented with dry taro from the low forest zones. This is the greatest continuous dry planting area in the Hawaiian Islands. … (likewise) ‘formerly great quantities of dry taro were planted in the lower forest belt from one end of the district to the other”. (Handy)
Like other areas, two heiau at Kaupō stand out for their massive size and labor invested in their construction, Lo‘alo‘a and Kou. Lo‘alo‘a Heiau seems to have been situated on the edge of a dense part of the field system and overlooks Manawainui Stream.
Lo‘alo‘a Heiau is one of the largest on Maui and indeed in the entire archipelago and is associated in Hawaiian traditions with King Kekaulike, who ruled Maui in the 1700s.
Dating suggests that the earliest stages of construction date to 1440–1660. Lo‘alo‘a, like many large structures, has a complex construction sequence, and Kekaulike would have rebuilt and rededicated a previously existing structure in the early 1700s.
It was during the subsequent reign of Kekaulike’s son, Kahekili, that vast changes occurred in Maui society and social organizational changes were instituted. Through inter-island conquest, the marriage of his brother to the Queen of Kauai, and appointment of his son to alternately govern Maui, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Oahu during his periodic absences.
By 1783, Kahekili dominated all the Hawaiian Islands except for Hawai‘i, a position he was to hold for nearly a decade until Kamehameha I conquered Maui. In about 1800-1801, Kamehameha I, who was en route to conquer Kauai, rededicated Loaloa. Following Kamehameha I’s conquest of the islands in the early historic period, the power of the Maui kings and centers such as Kaupo declined. (NPS)
It is believed that Kaupō with its field system at one time played an important role in the emerging Maui population, particularly in the final century prior to European contact, when it became the seat of the paramount Kekaulike.
Given Lo‘alo‘a’s location at the eastern edge of a vast dryland field season, this orientation is especially poignant, signifying the close association between the king, Lono, and the sweet potato fields that supported this staple-financed society.
The enormous capacity of these field systems enabled the rise of a population center; Lo‘alo‘a and Kou heiau on either side of the Kaupō fields illustrate the inseparable links between agriculture and the religious traditions of ancient Hawai‘i. (Kirch)
The first written description of the region was made by La Pérouse in 1786 while sailing along the southeast coast of Maui in search of a place to drop anchor:
“I coasted along its shore at a distance of a league (three miles) …. The aspect of the island of Mowee was delightful. We beheld water falling in cascades from the mountains, and running in streams to the sea, after having watered the habitations of the natives …”
“… which are so numerous that a space of three or four leagues (9 – 12 miles, about the distance from Hāna to Kaupō) may be taken for a single village.” (La Pérouse, 1786; Bushnell)
“But all the huts are on the seacoast, and the mountains are so near, that the habitable part of the island appeared to be less than half a league in depth. The trees which crowned the mountains, and the verdure of the banana plants that surrounded the habitations, produced inexpressible charms to our senses…”
“… but the sea beat upon the coast with the utmost violence, and kept us in the situation of Tantalus, desiring and devouring with our eyes what it was impossible for us to attain … After passing Kaupō no more waterfalls are seen, and villages are fewer.” (La Pérouse, 1786; Bushnell)
Lo’alo’a Heiau is three-tiered rectangular heiau, the structure is basically a raised platform, probably originally walled, built up around a small hill or large rock outcrop.
Two major divisions are clear, an eastern and a western, separated by a transverse stone wall. The overall dimensions are about 115 feet by 500 feet (57,500 square feet.)
The eastern portion of the structure, built up to a height of nearly 20 feet in some places, measuring approximately 115 by 220 feet, probably was the scene of the heiau functions.
Lo‘alo‘a Heiau was for several centuries the center and prime site of a culture complex around Kaupō that included multiple village sites and other heiau. The earliest dates for the settlement of the Kaupō District are unknown, however, from at least the 1400s the area fell under the Hana kings until the East and West Maui Kingdoms were unified in the 16th century. (NPS)
Building a structure the size of Lo‘alo‘a would have required an inconceivably large workforce if constructed in one stage. State level heiau such as Lo‘alo‘a had become the focus of a complex and tightly interwoven set of social, economic, political and religious functions that guided ancient Hawaiian life.
In general, religious practices were divided between the sexes as well as along socio-political lines. Men of high rank, the ali‘i, worshipped the four major gods in public or temple ceremonies: Lono (peace, agriculture, fertility, etc.), Kane and Kanaloa (healing and general well-being), and Ku (war.)
Only the ali’i class was responsible for national or state religious observations for the well-being of the entire population. The common man worshipped individual family gods in a private family temple as well as observances of the four major gods at the direction of the high priests.
Women, because they were considered periodically unclean, were not allowed to participate in temple ceremonies. They also worshipped their own distinct and separate gods.