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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The cattle egret: Hawaii’s elegant predator

Late summer has brought with it the arrival of a flock of cattle egrets to Horizon Guest House. These brilliantly white birds have found a summer home in the monkey pod tree in the upper pasture. Here they roost at night while during the day they follow the animals, keeping flies and insects at bay.

Cattle egrets originated from Africa, arriving in South America in the late 19th century before spreading through most of the continental United States in the 1940s.

They were first introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in 1959 by the Board of Agriculture and Forestry, in conjunction with local cattle ranchers. The birds were an attempt to try and combat the plague of flies that were affecting cattle herds. The flies were responsible for causing lower than usual weight gain in cattle, as well as causing damage to their hides.[1]

In total, 105 birds were released across the islands. By the early 1980s their population had exploded to approximately 30,000 birds.

Cattle egrets typically grow to around 20 inches and are usually seen in large flocks, within close proximity to wetlands.

Our visiting cattle egrets have quickly found a home in the pasture with the horse, donkeys and goats. The birds are content to follow the herd as it migrates about the pasture during the course of the day. Typically, you’ll find the birds perched on the backs of Sunny (the horse) and Poncho and Lefty (the donkeys).

In this way they provide a useful service to the animals, feeding on the flies that might be bothering them, as well as any insects.

Nest predators

Their impact on other endangered birds though is significant. Cattle egrets are known nest predators. In particular, they prey on the nests of the Hawaiian duck (koloa), Hawaiian stilt (aeo), Hawaiian common moorhen (alae ula) and the Hawaiian coot (alae keokeo). There are even instances of cattle egrets taking prawns from aquaculture farms![2]

The original intention of introducing cattle egrets was to use them as ‘biological control agents’.[3] Instead, these birds have joined a long line of other introduced species that, having failed to solve their original objective, have become part of a bigger problem – causing disruption to indigenous fauna.

Control order

In 2017, a control order was introduced for migratory bird species in Hawaii.[4] This control order targeted cattle egrets and barn owls. It identified them as invasive and threatening to native species. It also concluded that these bird populations could not simply be keep under control by non-lethal means. The order sanctioned the culling of cattle egrets by state and federal employees of specified agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Recognizing the fragile nature of Hawaii’s ecosystem is important to understanding why such action is necessary. Invading or introduced birds like the cattle egret have changed the habitat of some of our most precious and endangered species.[5] Controlled culling of cattle egrets may be the only way Hawaii can safeguard some of its most precious residents from the threat of extinction.

The cattle egret is an elegant bird and provides a service to cattle and other animals, but it’s relationship with endemic species remains problematic.

References

Cattle egret. (n.d). [1] Kaelepulu Wetland. https://kaelepuluwetland.com/birds/cattle-egret/

Cattle egret: Bubulcus ibis. (2012, August 13). [2] Hawaii Forest & Trail. https://www.hawaii-forest.com/cattle-egret-bubulcus-ibis/

Fish and Wildlife Service Interior. (2017, August 24).[4]Migratory bird permits: control order for introduced migratory bird species in Hawaii. Federal register: the daily journal for the United States government. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/07/25/2017-15471/migratory-bird-permits-control-order-for-introduced-migratory-bird-species-in-hawaii

Gosser, R. (2017).[5] From solution to problem: the irony of invasive species. Ke Kalahea, (4). https://hilo.hawaii.edu/news/kekalahea/the-irony-of-invasive-species-2017

Paton, P.W.C., Fellows, D.P. & Tomich, P.Q. (1986). [3] Distribution of cattle egret roosts in Hawaii with notes on the problems egrets pose to airports. ‘Elepaio, 46(13), 143-147. https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/paton/paton6.pdf

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