The social structure shaped and reinforced land management.
“(I)n the earliest times all the people were alii (chiefs) … it was only after the lapse of several generations that a division was made into commoners and chiefs” (Malo)
Kamakau noted, in early Hawaiʻi “The parents were masters over their own family group … No man was made chief over another.” Essentially, the extended family was the socio, biological, economic and political unit.
Because each ʻohana (family) was served by a parental haku (master, overseer) and each family was self-sufficient and capable of satisfying its own needs, there was no need for a hierarchal structure.
As the population increased and wants and needs increased in variety and complexity (and it became too difficult to satisfy them with finite resources,) the need for chiefly rule became apparent.
As chiefdoms developed, the simple pecking order of titles and status likely evolved into a more complex and stratified structure. The actual number of chiefs was few, but their retainers attached to the courts (advisors, konohiki, priests, warriors, etc) were many.
Most of the makaʻāinana (common people) were farmers, a few were fishermen. Tenants cultivated smaller crops for family consumption, to supply the needs of chiefs and provide tributes. Kapu (restrictions/prohibitions) were observed as a matter of resource and land management, among other things.
The traditional land use in the Hawaiian Islands evolved from shifting cultivation into a stable form of agriculture. Stabilization required a new form of land use and eventually the ahupua‘a form of land management was instituted (what we generally refer to as watersheds, today.)
In addition, this centralization of government allowed for completion and maintenance of large projects, such as irrigation systems, large taro loʻi, large fish ponds, heiau and trails.
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, this helped in preserving resources.
The ahupuaʻa boundaries reflected the pattern of land use that had evolved as the most efficient and beneficial to the well-being of the ʻohana, as the population expanded throughout previous centuries.
This pattern of land use and the boundaries were adopted and then instituted by the ruling chiefs and their supervisors to delineate units for the annual collection of the Makahiki Harvest Season offerings to them as the land stewards of Lono, God of Agriculture. (McGregor & MacKenzie)
Dr Marion Kelly noted there were three main technological advances resulting in food production intensification in pre-contact Hawai‘i: (a) walled fishponds, (b) terraced pondfields with their irrigation systems and (c) systematic dry-land field cultivation organized by vegetation zones.
Hawaiians built rock-walled enclosures in near shore waters, to raise fish for their communities and families. It is believed these were first built around the fifteenth century.
The ancient Hawaiian fishpond is a sophisticated land and ocean resource management technique. Utilizing raw materials such as rocks, corals, vines and woods, the Hawaiians created great walls (kuapā) and gates (mākāhā) for these fishponds.
The general term for a fishpond is loko (pond), or more specifically, loko iʻa (fishpond). Loko iʻa were used for the fattening and storing of fish for food and also as a source for kapu (forbidden) fish.
Samuel M. Kamakau points out that “one can see that they were built as government projects by chiefs, for it was a very big task to build one, (and) commoners could not have done it (singly, or without co-ordination.)” Chiefs had the power to command a labor force large enough to transport the tons of rock required and to construct such great walls.
A second technological invention by Hawaiian Polynesians was the development of their extended stone-faced, terraced pondfields (lo‘i) and their accompanying irrigation systems (ʻauwai) for the intensive cultivation of wetland taro (kalo.)
The terraces were irrigated with water brought in ditches from springs and streams high in the valleys, allowing extensive areas of the valleys to be cultivated. The irrigation ditches and pondfields were engineered to allow the cool water to circulate among the taro plants and from terrace to terrace, avoiding stagnation and overheating by the sun, which would rot the taro tubers.
An acre of irrigated pondfields produced as much as five times the amount of taro as an acre of dryland cultivation. Over a period of several years, irrigated pondfields could be as much as 10 or 15 times more productive than unirrigated taro gardens, as dryland gardens need to lie fallow for greater lengths of time than irrigated gardens.
The third form of subsistence intensification involved the systematic cultivation of dryland crops in their appropriate vegetation zones as exemplified by the Field Systems in Kona, Kohala, Kaupō and Kalaupapa (Kaʻū reportedly also has a field system.)
Cultivation of the soil in Kona was characterized by a variety of non-irrigated root and tree crops grown for subsistence, each farmer having gardens in one or more vegetation zones. Each crop was cultivated in the zone in which it grew best.
Reverend William Ellis described the area behind Kailua town in Kona above the breadfruit and mountain apple trees as, “The path now lay through a beautiful part of the country, quite a garden compared with that through which they had passed on first leaving the town.”
“It was generally divided into small fields, about fifteen rods square fenced with low stone walls, built with fragments of lava gathered from the surface of the enclosures. These fields were planted with bananas, sweet potatoes, mountain taro, paper mulberry plants, melons, and sugar-cane, which flourished luxuriantly in every direction.”
The fields were typically oriented parallel to the elevation contours and the walls; sometimes these were made up of a grid of rain-fed plots, defined by low stone field walls built, in part, to shelter sweet potatoes and other crops from the wind.
Since the dryland technique was away from supplemental water sources, this was truly dryland agriculture. There was no evidence to level terraces as in irrigated pondfield systems (taro lo‘i,) and there was no evidence of water control features or channels; so the conclusion was the system was strictly rainfed.
The condition of the common people was that of subjection to the chiefs, compelled to do their heavy tasks, burdened and oppressed some even to death. The life of the people was one of patient endurance, of yielding to the chiefs to purchase their favor. The plain man (kanaka) must not complain. (Malo)