Understanding Ahupuaʻa: Ancient Hawaii’s unique land division model

Hawaiian Chiefs 3
Konohiki – Chief Stewards

In ancient Hawaii land ownership was overseen by the king. An island (mokupuni) was made up of a number of large sections of land (moku). Each of these individual moku were divided into ahupuaʻa (‘ahoo-poo-ah-ah’). Ahupuaʻa are narrow wedge-shaped pieces of land (like a piece of pie) that run from the mountains (mauka) to the sea (makai).

Ahupuaʻa would vary in size and this was dependent on how resource-rich the area was (an ahupuaʻa would be made larger in order to compensate for its lack of agricultural productivity). For example, Kahuku, which contains large tracts of lava fields on the southern slopes of Mauna Loa, was the largest ahupuaʻa on the island of Hawaiʻi with over 184,000 acres. Each of these wedges of land were ruled by a local chief known as an aliʻi.

Honolulu Board of Water Supply
Photo credite: Honolulu Board of Water Supply (Hawaiihistory.org)

Why was it called Ahupuaʻa?

Because the boundary of each section of land was marked by a stack (ahu) of stones where a pig  (puaʻa) or pig’s image (some kind of carving) was often placed as tribute (or tax) to the local chief.

Ahupua'a boundary marker. Photo credit: Thomas Tunsch, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why was it created?

Each ahupuaʻa is considered to be a self-sufficient community. Those in the mountains or upland forested areas, would trade with those closer to the ocean. The slice of land would stretch from the top of a mountain down to the shoreline in a wedge shape. Rainwater would be diverted into streams in the upper valleys carrying the water down to irrigate the crops grown near the ocean. In this way it was easier to travel up and downstream within an ahupuaʻa than from one stream valley to a neighboring valley. This arrangement ensured that an ahupuaʻa would include fish and salt from the sea, areas of agricultural land for taro and sweet potato, and the forest – to provide timber for construction.

The agricultural system was divided into two groups: irrigated and rain-fed. Within the irrigated systems taro was grown and within the rain-fed systems, mostly ʻuala (sweet potato), yams and dryland taro. Other cultivated crops included coconuts (niu), ʻulu (breadfruit), bananas (maiʻa) and sugar cane (kō). The kukui tree was often used as a shade tree for the dry crops. Alongside the crops, Hawaiians kept dogs, chickens and domesticated pigs.

Local residents who lived under the chief’s rule would pay a regular tax to an overseer (konohiki) who would also determine how the resources in the ahupuaʻa would be used.

HAVO-Ahupuaa-Map
The division of districts and ahupuaʻa in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (adapted from the National Park Service publication "In the Realm of Pele-honua-mea" by M.J. Tomonari-Tuggle)

Traditional subdivision system

The Hawaiian Islands were subdivided in the following way:

Mokupuni (the whole islands, except Kahoʻolawe):

  • Hawaiʻi
  • Kauaʻi
  • Lānaʻi
  • Maui
  • Moloka’i
  • Niʻihau
  • Oʻahu

Moku (is the largest subdivision of an island)

Ahupuaʻa

ʻili (usually two to three per ahupuaʻa)

Ahupuaʻa were not entirely self-contained. While they encouraged a high level of resource self-sufficiency for the inhabiting community, there was still room for regional and even interisland trade.

ahupuaa-boundary.ahu_Cypher
Stone ahu, marking the boundary between Kane`ohe and Kailua, at Castle Junction, Oʻahu. Photo credit: Mahealani Cypher Historichawaii.org

Ahupuaʻa were a way of creating cohesive community networks that allowed resources to be used efficiently and also meant the king retained effective control of the islands via a network of Ahupuaʻa chiefs.

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