Folks describe different ‘phases’ or ‘periods’ of human settlement and agricultural development in the Islands over time. Different people use different terms for each of these (some use varying timeframes, as well,) but they seem to generally fall into Settlement, Development, Expansion and ultimately Post-Contact.
Settlement – AD 1000-1400
It is believed that initial Polynesian discovery and settlement of the Hawaiian Islands occurred between approximately AD 1000 and 1200. (Kirch) This effectively started the ‘Settlement’ phase.
The rich valley bottoms which later they would clear, terrace, and irrigate for wet-taro cultivation, were in their pristine state, dense jungle, probably covered mostly with the hau shrub which, where it runs wild, produces a dense, tight jungle. For this jungle the first settlers had no use.
What taro tops they had, they planted along the banks of the streams, as taro is still planted along the banks of irrigation and drainage ditches. If they had sweet-potato shoots, these were planted in sandy soil near their huts.
It is more likely, however, that the first settlers had little or nothing to plant. The plants and more settlers were probably brought by canoes sent back to the homeland.
For generations, the small, slowly growing population clustered around shore sites near streams that supplied them with water. Such sites are best for inshore fishing.
Fishermen and their families living around the bays and the beaches, or at isolated localities along the coast where fishing was practicable, led a life that was materially simpler than that of planters who dwelt on the plains.
The food plants of Hawaiʻi can be divided into three groups: those known as staple foods (the principal starchy foods – kalo (taro,) ʻuala (sweet potato,) ʻulu (breadfruit,) etc;) those of less importance (to add nutrients and variety to the diet;) and those known as famine foods. (Krauss)
With such a small (but growing) population based on the family unit, society was not so complicated that it needed chiefs to govern or oversee the general population.
Kamakau states that there were no chiefs in the earliest period of settlement but that they came “several hundred years afterward … when men became numerous.”
Development – AD 1400-1650
As the ancient Hawaiian population grew, land use and resource management also evolved. 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.) Ahupuaʻa served as a means of managing people.
In addition, this centralization of government allowed for development and maintenance of large projects, such as irrigation systems, large taro loʻi, large fish ponds, heiau and trails.
To feed more people, farming became more developed and intensified. Only in Hawaiʻi was there such an intensive effort to utilize practically every body of water, from seashore to upland forests, as a source of food, for either agriculture or aquaculture.
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. (Kelly)
Another technological invention by Hawaiian Polynesians was the development of their extended stone-faced, terraced pondfields (lo‘i) and their accompanying irrigation systems (‘auwai) 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 lo‘I kalo 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 thin irrigated gardens. (Kelly)
There was systematic cultivation of dryland crops in their appropriate vegetation zones as exemplified by the Field Systems (notable systems are seen in Kona, Kohala, Kaupō, Kalaupapa and Ka‘ū.) (Kelly)
This was a period of tremendous significance in Hawaiian pre-contact history since, during this time, (1) the population underwent a geometric rate of increase; (2) virtually all habitable and arable lands were occupied and territorially claimed; (3) the territorial pattern of chiefdom (moku) and subchiefdom units (ahupua‘a) appears to have been established …
… and (4) toward the end of this period the Hawaiian sociopolitical system was transformed from a simple, ancestral Polynesian chiefdom to a highly stratified society with virtual class differentiation between chiefs and commoners. (Kirch)
Expansion – AD 1650-Contact (1778)
A population peak (usually estimated at several hundred thousand) was reached around 1650 AD, more than 100 years before contact with Europeans.
It was at this population peak, or shortly before, that Hawaiians began to inhabit less favorable coastline areas and barren zones between the coast and upland agricultural sites and to develop extensive dryland agricultural systems in marginal regions. (Cuddihy)
Large-scale irrigation works and permanent field systems were developed during the expansion period. Settlements were intruding into increasingly marginal environments, including the interiors of leeward valleys and the higher elevation slopes. Population densities in the fertile windward valleys increased, although densities in tablelands and elsewhere were much lower.
Cultivation 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.”
There was extensive development of at least the mauka portion of the kula sub-zone, for sweet potatoes, wauke and probably also gourds. This development was accompanied rarely by permanent habitation and more often by temporary and seasonal habitation along the kula gardens.
Animal enclosures, probably for pigs, may date to this phase. The upland zones were under complete development by this time. Suitable caves were modified for refuge during times of warfare or social conflict. Caves located in the midst of garden features were intensively used for temporary shelter and work spaces. (Terry)
Post Contact – After 1778
At the time of Captain Cook’s arrival (1778-1779), the Hawaiian Islands were divided into four chiefdoms: (1) the island of Hawaiʻi under the rule of Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who also had possession of the Hāna district of east Maui; (2) Maui (except the Hāna district,) Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi and Kahoʻolawe, ruled by Kahekili; (3) Oʻahu, under the rule of Kahahana; and (4) Kauaʻi and Niʻihau, Kamakahelei was ruler.
Island rulers, Aliʻi or Mōʻī, typically ascended to power through familial succession and warfare. In those wars, Hawaiians were killing Hawaiians; sometimes the rivalries pitted members of the same family against each other.
“It is supposed that some six thousand of the followers of this chieftain (Kamehameha,) and twice that number of his opposers, fell in battle during his career, and by famine and distress occasioned by his wars and devastations from 1780 to 1796.” (Bingham)
In addition to deaths in wars, epidemics of infections added to the decline in Hawaiʻi’s population from approximately 300,000 at the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 to 135,000 in 1820 and 53,900 in 1876.
Vancouver was appalled by the impoverished circumstances of the people and the barren and uncultivated appearance of their lands. “The deplorable condition to which they had been reduced by an eleven years war” and the advent of “the half famished trading vessels” convinced him that he should pursue his peace negotiations for “the general happiness, of the inhabitants of all the islands.” (Vancouver, Voyage 2)
“By this time nearly a generation of the race had passed away, subsequently to their discovery by Cook. How much of their strength had been exhausted by wars and the support of armies, and how much by new and terrible diseases, it is not easy to estimate. The population was greatly diminished, and the residue unimproved in morals.” (Bingham)
The cultivation of kula lands gradually decreased in extent and intensity, nevertheless remaining important to a decreasing population. Some kula lands were being converted to grazing beginning in the 1840s.
The first commercially-viable sugar plantation, Ladd and Co., was started at Kōloa on Kaua‘i. On July 29, 1835, Ladd & Company obtained a 50-year lease on nearly 1,000-acres of land and established a plantation and mill site in Kōloa.
At the industry’s peak in the 1930s, Hawaii’s sugar plantations employed more than 50,000 workers and produced more than 1-million tons of sugar a year; over 254,500-acres were planted in sugar. That plummeted to 492,000 tons in 1995.
Although sugar dominated the Hawaiian economy, there was also great demand at the time for fresh Hawaiian pineapples, and later canned pineapple. By 1931, pineapple production exceeded 12 million cases as a result of both expansion and improvements in productivity; production of canned pineapple peaked in 1957.