What is commonly referred to as the “ahupuaʻa system” is a result of the firm establishment of palena (place boundaries.) This system of land divisions and boundaries enabled a konohiki (land/resource manager) to know the limits and productivity of the resources that he managed.
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. Ultimately, distribution of people throughout the Islands helped in preserving resources.
A typical ahupuaʻa (what we generally refer to as watersheds, today) was a long strip of land, narrow at its mountain summit top and becoming wider as it ran down a valley into the sea to the outer edge of the reef. If there was no reef then the sea boundary would be about one and a half miles from the shore.
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. (Beamer, Duarte)
Typically, natural features served as boundary markers: summit peaks, ridge crests, streams, volcanic cones, etc. Additional markers were placed to note the ahupua‘a boundary – so called because the boundary was marked by a heap (ahu) of stones surmounted by an image of a pig (pua‘a,) or because a pig or other tribute was laid on the altar as tax to the chief.
Māʻilikūkahi is recognized as the first great chief of O‘ahu and legends tell of his wise, firm, judicious government. He was born ali‘i kapu at the birthing stones of Kūkaniloko; Kūkaniloko was one of two places in Hawai‘i specifically designated for the birth of high ranking children, the other site was Holoholokū at Wailua on Kauaʻi.
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.
Fornander writes, “He caused the island to be thoroughly surveyed, and boundaries between differing divisions and lands be definitely and permanently marked out, thus obviating future disputes between neighboring chiefs and landholders.”
Kamakau tells a similar story, “When the kingdom passed to Māʻilikūkahi, the land divisions were in a state of confusion; the ahupuaʻa, the ku, the ʻili ʻāina, the moʻo ʻāina, the pauku ʻāina, and the kihāpai were not clearly defined.”
“Therefore, Māʻilikūkahi ordered the chiefs, aliʻi, the lesser chiefs, kaukau aliʻi, the warrior chiefs, puʻali aliʻi, and the overseers (luna) to divide all of Oʻahu into moku, ahupuaʻa, ʻili kupono, ʻili ʻaina, and moʻo ʻāina.”
On Maui, Kalaihaʻōhia, a kahuna (priest, expert,) is credited with the division of Maui Island into districts (moku) and sub-districts, during the time of the aliʻi Kakaʻalaneo at the end of the 15th century or the beginning of the 16th century. (McGerty)
On the Island of Hawaiʻi, ʻUmi-a-Līloa (ʻUmi) from Waipiʻo, son of Līloa, also started to divide the lands following this similar mauka-makai orientation.
ʻUmi also started a significant new form of agriculture in Kona; archaeologists call the unique method of farming in this area the “Kona Field System.” (These are long, narrow fields that ran along the contours, along the slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualālai; farmers then planted different crops, according to the respective rainfall gradients.)
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.
Traditionally, the Island of Kaua‘i was divided into five moku (districts): Haleleʻa, Kona, Koʻolau, Nāpali and Puna. However, after the battle of Wahiawa in 1824, the land of Kaua‘i was redistributed and district boundaries changed. The new district names became: Hanalei, Kawaihau, Līhuʻe, Kōloa and Waimea. (Cultural Surveys)
The size of the ahupuaʻa depended on the resources of the area with poorer agricultural regions split into larger ahupuaʻa to compensate for the relative lack of natural abundance. Each ahupuaʻa was ruled by an aliʻi or local chief and administered by a konohiki.
These natural land divisions were the result of the flow of water over the land (streams or springs.) In keeping with the concept of wealth being fresh water, the traditional land tenure system in ancient Hawaiʻi had at its very core the presence of water. Although of many shapes and sizes, the typical ahupuaʻa consisted of three area types: mountain, plain and sea.
Later, during the Mahele and subsequent testimony before the Land Commission, properties were identified by the ahupuaʻa and the boundaries were known.
Fearing the loss of knowledge of the ancient palena, on June 26, 1862 a bill providing for Commissioners of Boundaries notes, “Owners of said lands require a settlement of the boundaries of said lands, for the reason of the death and consequent loss of the testimony of witnesses necessary for the just settlement of such boundaries.” (Beamer, Duarte)
More formal mapping was made to preserve the traditional locations, with provisions noting, “Lands will be mapped to make clear the ancient ahupuaʻa boundaries, or in some cases maps will be made to make clear `iwi (boundary of a land division smaller than an ahupuaʻa), at the place where one’s land ends.”
Surveys conducted and maps produced during the Māhele and Boundary Commission era were some of geography’s earliest encounters with Hawaiʻi and its people.
Mapping was applied to aid in the transition from the traditional system of land “tenure” to that of fee simple and leasehold ownership and to record traditional knowledge of boundaries and places. (Beamer, Duarte)
The image shows what is believed to be an ahupuaʻa marker on the ridge at Kuliʻouʻou valley (from a collection from John Dominis Holt (DMY.))