The most important unit in the ancient Hawaiian system of land division was the ahupua‘a, a pie-shaped wedge running from a high point on the island to the coast and some distance out to sea. Since Hawaiian islands tend to have rain-carved valleys originating at central mountains and opening out toward the coast, an ahupua‘a often roughly followed the contours of watersheds. The coastal boundaries were marked by an ahu, a heap of piled stones supporting a carved wooden image of a pua‘a, or pig—symbol of the tribute paid annually to the paramount chief of the island by the lesser chiefs in charge of each ahupua‘a. The commoners within an ahupua‘a, living in extended families, held tenancy to small landholdings called ‘ili. The ahupua‘a provided the resources to sustain a community: access to upland forests for timber, lowlands for growing crops, and fishing and gathering along a stretch of coast. This traditional system ended in 1848 when Kamehameha III was persuaded by foreigners to institute the Great Mahele (division), which allowed land to be bought and sold. In modern times ahupua‘a holds both the traditional meaning and a broader one of environmentally responsible land use.

Pamela Frierson