One of the great achievements of the ancient Hawaiians in this region is evidenced in the agricultural Kōloa Field System on the South Shore of Kauai.
Evidence indicates the Kōloa area was forested to the shore before the arrival of the first Polynesians. When they started to settle in this area, they cleared the land for agriculture by burning.
Because rainfall is low in this area, the early Hawaiians constructed sophisticated irrigation systems for growing taro and other crops. Ultimately, the Kōloa Field System of agriculture was established with formal growing areas and irrigation system tapping off of Waikomo Stream.
Its elements include parallel and branching ʻauwai (irrigation ditches,) terraced loʻi (taro growing ponds,) and dryland plots. Later intensification includes aqueducted ʻauwai, irrigated mound fields, and subdivision of lo’i and kula plots.
Beginning possibly as early as 1450, the Kōloa Field System was planned and built on the shallow lava soils to the east and west of Waikomo Stream.
It is characterized as a network of fields of both irrigated and dryland crops, built mainly upon one stream system. Waikomo Stream was adapted into an inverted tree model with smaller branches leading off larger branches.
The associated dispersed housing and field shelters were located among the fields, particularly at junctions of the irrigation ditches (ʻauwai).
In this way, the whole of the field system was contained within the entire makai (seaward) portion of the ahupuaʻa of Kōloa stretching east and west to the ahupuaʻa boundaries.
The field system, with associated clusters of permanent extended family habitations, was in place by the middle of the 16th century and was certainly expanded and intensified continuously from that time.
Long ʻauwai were constructed along the tops of topographic high points formed by northeast to southwest oriented Kōloa lava flows. These ʻauwai extended all the way to the sea.
Habitation sites, including small house platforms, enclosures and L-shaped shelters were built in rocky bluff areas which occupied high points in the landscape and were therefore close to ʻauwai, which typically ran along the side of these bluffs.
From A.D. 1650-1795, the Hawaiian Islands were typified by the development of large communal residences, religious structures and an intensification of agriculture.
The Kōloa Field System is unique in a number of ways; its makeup and design tells us much of the pre-contact world and the ingenuity of the ancients with respect to planning, architecture, agriculture and social system.
A complex of wet and dryland agricultural fields and associated habitation sites occur in the lava tablelands of the makai portion of Kōloa ahupua’a on the south coast of Kauai. Although soil deposits are thin and the land is rocky, plentiful irrigation water was available.
This agricultural system which at its peak covered over 1,000 acres extends from the present Kōloa town to the shoreline and includes a complex of wet and dryland agricultural fields and associated habitation sites.
The Kōloa System, at its apex in the early 19th century (probably due to the opportunity for provisioning of the whaling ships,) represents one of the most intensive cultural landscapes in Hawaiʻi.
Kōloa Field System was in use through 1850 AD. Remnants of this field system still remain in parts of the region.
The Koloa Field System is a significant Point of Interest in the Holo Holo Kōloa Scenic Byway. We worked with the Kōloa community in preparing the Corridor Management Plan for this project; one of our recommendations is to restore a portion of the field system.
A special thanks to Hal Hammatt and Cultural Surveys for information and images used here that is based on their extensive research in this area.