At the time of initial contact, Hawaiian subsistence economy was dominated by two distinct agricultural ecosystems: (1) irrigated ponds (primarily for taro production) near permanent streams that could feed irrigation canals and (2) extensive tracts of dryland, rain-fed intensive cultivation (focused on the cultivation of sweet potatoes.)
Although irrigated ponds continued after contact, the intensive dryland field systems were abandoned in the early decades of the nineteenth century (probably due to greater labor demands for the dryland systems.)
Until recently, no intensive, dryland rain-fed field systems had been identified on Maui. However, now, there is clear evidence of such a system at Kaupō.
Before getting into the specifics of the field system, let’s recall what was happening in and around Kaupō in late pre-contact times.
Kaupō is associated in Hawaiian oral traditions with Kekaulike, a famous Maui king (ali‘i nui) who on genealogical estimates is dated to approximately the early eighteenth century.
Kekaulike made Kaupō his residential seat, and assembled his army at Mokulau, preparing for a war of conquest against his rivals on Hawai‘i Island.
After returning from his invasion of Kohala, Kekaulike resided at Kaupō, where he died. The succession of the Maui kingship demonstrated the importance that Kaupō had in the late pre-contact Maui kingdom.
Kaupō is on the south-eastern flanks of Haleakalā, Maui.
The district is dominated by the “Kaupō Gap,” a breach of the southern wall of Haleakalā Crater with a rejuvenation phase of a massive outpouring of lava flows (and one major mudflow) through the Kaupō Gap and down to the sea, creating a vast accretion fan. The Hawaiians called this fan Nā Holokū (“The Cloak.”)
It was this great fan of young lavas with high nutrient content, combined with ideal climate conditions that provided the environmental potential for intensive agricultural production in Kaupō.
Given its use as a Royal Center for Island Ali‘i, there was a definite need for sufficient crop production. Fortunately, the area has an ideal combination of soils, elevation and rainfall making it also a predictable environment for an intensive dryland field system to feed the people.
Historic records note that this region was identified as “the greatest continuous dry planting area in the Hawaiian islands,” both in ancient times and well into the 1930s. But this old culture was vanishing due to a combination of economic and climatic circumstances.
Oral traditions state that sweet potatoes were cultivated from sea level up to about 2,000 feet elevation and great quantities of dry taro were planted in the lower forest belt from one end of the district to the other.
Using high-resolution color aerial photographs of Kaupō and then confirming their findings on the ground, archaeologists identified grid patterns over significant parts of the landscape, confirming the existence of a major dryland field system, the first to be identified for Maui Island.
The field system a closely spaced grid of east-west embankments and small field plots bisected at right angles by longer north-south trending walls; it covered an area of 3,000 to nearly 4,000-acres and could have supported a population of 8,000-10,000 people.
A range of smaller features such as enclosures, shelters and platforms are found within the field system area indicating the presence of a complex social community integrated within the system.
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 most common feature type consists of stacked or core-filled stone-walled enclosures; many of these are rectangular and may be the foundation walls for thatched houses, but a few larger, irregular enclosures may be animal pens.
On Hawai‘i Island, field system complexes are associated with prominent ceremonial structures (heiau) and royal residential centers, such as Mo‘okini Heiau at the northern tip of Kohala, and the royal centers at Kealakekua and Hōnaunau in Kona.
This strong association between field systems and ceremonial architecture is not surprising, given that these intensively cultivated field complexes provided the underpinning of the elite economy.
Like other areas, two heiau at Kaupō stand out for their massive size and labor invested in their construction, Lo‘alo‘a and Kou.
Lo‘alo‘a Heiau is one of the largest on Maui and indeed in the entire archipelago and is associated in Hawaiian traditions with King Kekaulike, who ruled Maui in the early 1700s. Kou Heiau, on a lava promontory jutting into the sea is on the western end of the Kaupō field system.
It is believed that Kaupō with its field system at one time played an important role in the emerging Maui population, particularly in the final century prior to European contact, when it became the seat of the paramount Kekaulike.
The enormous capacity of these field systems enabled the rise of a population center; Lo‘alo‘a and Kou heiau on either side of the Kaupō fields illustrate the inseparable links between agriculture and the religious traditions of ancient Hawai‘i. (Lots here from Kirch.)