At the time of discovery by Captain James Cook, the Hawaiian Islands were not completely settled. Only the best of the arable land, capable of cultivation by the gardening methods practiced, was actually utilized.
This was probably because the Hawaiians had been in these islands since between approximately AD 1000 and 1200 (Kirch,) and their agricultural development and the expansion of population were constantly interfered with by the feuding of the ali‘i.
Had it not been for European intrusion in the late 18th century and the consequent decline of the subsistence economy and rapid dwindling of the number of Hawaiians, it is reasonable to assume that there would gradually have come about, over a period of centuries, a considerable expansion of land utilization and of population.
If the same ingenuity shown in building aqueducts in Waimea Valley and Kalalau on Kauai had been applied to many other stream systems throughout the islands, a great deal more wet taro could have been cultivated by terracing more land on the lower slopes of the hills bordering the valleys.
For example, there is much relatively level land in Wailua on Kauai to which water could have been brought by means of aqueducts tapping the ample flow of the Wailua River … the same is true of a number of other localities on the leeward side of this island, which is more plentifully supplied with abundant water than any of the other islands.
On Oahu, if aqueducts and hillside terracing comparable to that in Kalalau on Kauai had been employed, the interior and slopes of most of the larger taro valleys could have been converted into lo‘i.
In Mānoa and Nu‘uanu, for example, it was only the relatively level areas that were terraced. This was true equally of the stream systems of the windward coast of Oahu and of West Maui.
It becomes apparent that for the most part loci were built only where water was easily accessible, where the main stream could be tapped without recourse to anything other than simple ditching.
A little more ingenuity and labor, instigated by pressure of population such as existed in the isolated valleys of Kalalau on Kauai and Wailua Nui on East Maui, would have induced or compelled the people to develop considerably more land for irrigated taro.
Most of the extensive systems of lo‘i must have been planned with a view to developing an overall system rather than allowing the system to grow piecemeal, because the ditching had to be so patterned as to bring fresh water direct to every lo’i so planned.
It is not improbable that there was an era following colonization of Hawaii when the lo’i systems, ditches, aqueducts, and fishponds were developed, after which the utilization and maintenance of these became a matter of routine under surveillance of konohiki, or supervisors for the aliʻi landlords.
After the early epoch of massive enterprise and the terracing of the best lands for irrigation, the constant strife between rival aliʻi and the system of transferring title to lands at the accession of every new high chief would certainly have served as a deterrent to further pioneering.
There seems to have been more initiative in the creation of irrigation systems on Kauai than on any other island. This was probably because of the large stream systems there and the depth of the valleys, and probably also because of the island’s relative isolation which discouraged invasion by chieftains from neighboring islands.
If ingenuity and technology of Hawaiians on Kauai enabled them to build aqueducts, such as those described at Waimea and on the Koaie stream, and to terrace the steep sides of Kalalau Valley, the people of the other islands must have been capable of similar achievements.
But there are no elevated stone aqueducts, and no terraced valley sides on Oahu, on Maui, on Molokai, or on Hawaii. Waialua on Oahu has a river whose waters could have been used to develop very large areas of lo’i, but there were here no such developed areas.
In many valleys with large streams (Waimea, Kāne’ohe, Nuʻuanu, Kalihi) there might well have been much greater utilization of available water and land on Oahu. The same is true of both West and East Maui, of Molokai, and of windward Hawai‘i.
One factor of prime importance affecting the development of plantation areas was propinquity to good fishing grounds. Such land areas as were intensively developed were always in localities where good fishing grounds were easily accessible.
It may be said therefore that as a general principle Hawaiians developed their land resources only where they lay not too far distant from good fishing grounds which would give them their needed protein food. Hogs and dogs were luxuries enjoyed by the aliʻi, rarely by country folk.
It was only in Kāʻu and Kona on the island of Hawaii that upland plantations were systematically developed to a great degree. The reason may have been that the shores and offshore waters offered such rich opportunity for fishing that plantations were extended far into the upland.
The Puna, Hilo, Hāmākua and Kohala Districts might well have developed more extensive areas of mulched taro, but the fishing grounds were not as rich; and hence, perhaps, there were fewer families to farm the uplands.
On Kauai and O‘ahu sweet potatoes were planted only as a supplement to taro, along the coastal zone where there was sandy or rather dry soil not suitable for taro. Yet there were very extensive areas which, it would seem, might have been utilized for sweet potatoes if there had been sufficient pressure of population to demand it.
This applies to much of the kula land which has since been planted in pineapple and sugar cane, from Kalihi to Hanapepe on Kauai. On Oahu, it applies particularly to the hills between the mountains and the sea in the Kāne’ohe area, and to the level lands now planted in pineapples and sugar cane between the Koʻolau and Waiʻanae ranges.
On Maui the same is true of much of the kula land now or recently utilized for pineapples or cane on the east, north, and south slopes of West Mau, and from Makawao to Waipi‘o on the west and northern slopes of Haleakala on East Maui. On Molokai, homesteaders at Ho‘olehua, on land not planted in ancient times, were growing sweet potatoes with great success.
On the island of Hawai‘i the population was quite sparse in many areas of the Hāmākua coast, Waimea, and Kohala, which were ideally suited to sweet-potato cultivation. In the vicinity of Honokaʻa and Kalaupapa on the Hāmākua coast, flourishing sweet-potato patches have been seen in localities where forest formerly stood.
Most of the land that was planted in sugar cane (in modern times) could have been used for mulched taro or sweet potatoes, but that would have involved the clearing of the ancient candlenut forest, a type of operation which Hawaiians rarely undertook with their stone adzes. This type of forest cannot be cleared by burning over.
Breadfruit was extensively planted only in upper Wailua on Kauai and in Kona and Puna on Hawai‘i. Yet on every island this food, could have been grown in quantity. Lack of pressure of population and a preference for taro, and next to that for sweet potato, were doubtless responsible for the neglect of breadfruit.
Modern plantations of banana on areas of O‘ahu formerly neglected by Hawaiians show how this food could have been grown in quantity. For Hawaiians it was a subsidiary item, like sugar cane, which was casually planted on the banks between lo‘i and the rocky borders of upland plantations.
The neglect of the banana as a perennial food producer is one of the indications that the islands were by no means completely settled.
Coconut trees flourished in many isolated localities on Kauai, O‘ahu, Maui and Hawai‘i. Yet the coconut was not systematically planted, and there were only two varieties in contrast to the great number of varieties in the southern islands. The nut, which in three stages of growth is a valuable food, was eaten hardly at all.
Candlenut oil was preferred to that of the coconut as a condiment. The leaves were little used for thatch or baskets. The shells were rarely used for cups. Possibly the coconut was a late comer in the island economy. (All of the information above is from Handy.)
The Nature Conservancy and Office of Hawaiian Affairs collaborated on a mapping project that identified ecological regions and the pre- and post-contact ‘Hawaiian Footprint.’ (Footprint notes the geospatial areas that were chronically occupied, directly manipulated and significantly changed from pre-existing Hawaiian ecosystem types into traditional Hawaiian uses.)
In ecological terms, a ‘footprint’ can be defined as a measure of human demand on ecosystems of any given area. It represents the estimated geographic area required to both supply the resources that are consumed by a population as well as assimilate the associated wastes that are produced by the production and consumption of those resources. (ESRI)
The map here, as well as those in the attached album, shows the estimated pre-contact settlement and use by the native Hawaiians.
The Native Hawaiian Footprint of the main Hawaiian Islands is estimated to be approximately 382,000 acres or about 9.3-percent of the main Hawaiian Islands. The pre-contact footprint is remarkably smaller than the present-day footprint of approximately 2.1-million acres or over 52-percent of the main Hawaiian Islands.