What is an Ahupuaʻa?

What is an Ahupua‘a?

An ahupuaʻa is a land division system consisting of tracts of land, usually extending from the highest regions of the uplands to the seashore which also extended into the ocean and also defined by varying geographic boundaries, similar to a pie shape. The meaning of ahupuaʻa is derived from the boundary marked by a heap (ahu) of stones surmounted by an image of a pig’s head or because a pig – or other tribute – was laid on the alter as tax to the chief.

Realms of Ahupua'a

What was a 15th Century Ahupua‘a?

In the 14 th and 15 th centuries, the paramount chief of Oʻahu, Maʻilikūkahi organized a new form of land tenure into an ahupuaʻa system accompanied by a centralized government of the chiefly structure to oversee the stewardship and proper management of reform. In doing so, it allowed for completion and maintenance of large scaled public projects such as regional irrigation viaduct systems, immense agricultural production, expansive fish ponds, construction of sacred temples, and trails for commuting.

The “ Konohiki ” or chief steward(s) of the land division an ahupuaʻa had the demanding responsibility of implementing the edicts of his superiors to produce the maximum potential of each land division, while mobilizing the populous of commoners from small scale micro projects to larger macro initiatives like engineering water irrigation waterways. The division of labor to maintain anywhere from 5 acres up to a 1,000+ acres of land within an ahupuaʻa required social order and ascribed a common set of values and principles of communal reciprocity defined by varying sets of behaviors and privileges. Those of the aliʻi or chiefly royal class and that of the makaʻāinana or commoners.

See the table below for the Chiefly structure and their Responsible Stewardship over Land Division.

Hierarchy of Chiefs and their Authority over Land Divisions

Chiefly Rank and/or Title

Responsible Stewardship of Land Division

Mō‘ī (Sovereign King/Queen)

Governance and authority over entire Kingdom

Ali‘i Nui and/or Ali‘i of various high rank and title

Governance, authority, & responsibility over a moku or district land division

Kālai‘āina or Kālaimoku (General Executive or Prime Minister of Land Stewardship or carver of land)

Responsible for oversight of chiefs and the equitable distribution of lands, water, and natural resources

Kahuna (Professional class of priests and experts)

Responsible for rituals and ceremonies, provides guidance to the Alii Nui, Kalaiaina, Kaukau Alii, and Konohiki regarding fortuitous omens and signs

Kaukau Ali‘i (War chiefs, chiefly servant to Alii Nui)

Responsible for oversight of Konohiki and the equitable distribution of lands, water, and natural resources

Konohiki (Chief Land Steward of an ahupua‘a)

Governance, authority, & responsibility over an Ahupua‘a or multiple ahupua‘a, and the equitable distribution of lands, water, and natural resources for the makaainana or commoners and taxation to the hierarchy of ranking chiefs

Centuries prior to the arrival of European explorers to Hawaiʻi, kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) ancestors developed an elaborate and highly sophisticated society based on concepts of kapu (highly restricted regulations and edicts of behaviors) and noa (elements free of taboo or restrictions, unregulated behaviors). Referred to as the Kapu System, it was a governance structure perfected over hundreds of generations dating as far back as the 10th century established by an aliʻi class of chiefs and kahuna priests through the union of secular and ancient religious precepts of ancient Polynesian forefathers to ensure equitable access to resources in perpetuity for a thriving community. The orchestration and statecraft of the Kapu System consisted of careful planning, coordination, and orderliness of the maka ʻ āainana or commoners and the proper stewardship of socio-economic customs of bartering, political affairs, and land and natural resource management carried out by a structured hierarchy of ranked chiefs.

Societal Structure in Ancient Hawai`i

Societal Structure in Ancient Hawai`i
By the 10 th century ancient Hawaiian society established a hierarchical system of ranking chiefs who ruled over various sizes of land chiefdoms. The social structure of commoners, priests, and chiefs shaped and reinforced land stewardship pending the size of the village(s) and boundaries. Traditional land in ancient Hawaiʻi evolved from small family-village plots into larger forms of systemic agriculture by maximizing lands within fertile regions. As the population increased and needs of chiefdoms also intensified, advancements in greater agricultural cultivation, irrigation structures, and resources for tools, textiles, weapons, and cultural materials, the evolution for chiefly rule became apparent for greater governance and societal order.

The Kapu system was based on similar principles and enforceable regulations to modern democratic governance models of land and natural resource management disciplines in most developed countries. For example, fresh water uses for drinking, cooking, and farming as well as the oversight of its distribution for public consumption is a regulatory natural resource by local to regional municipalities. How water, and land, as resources are allocated, distributed, and accessed in contemporary Hawaiʻi continues to vary by government counties, geographic region, and community demand(s).

What is a 21st Century Ahupuaʻa?

Over the past decades, global climatic changes have increased dramatically causing instabilities in extreme weather patterns such as hurricanes, increased carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere, sea level rise associated with the warming of the world’s ocean waters and lower levels of oxygen in the atmosphere vital to cooling earth’s temperatures to mitigate natural catastrophes. Such challenges have a ripple effect on people globally like declining agriculture industries affecting food shortages to feed growing populations, displaced communities due to erosion of land and increases in ocean tides, and accelerated deterioration of earth’s rain and natural forests attributed to development and encroachment by timber, soil, and mining industries despite its ramifications universally.

Hawaiʻi and other Pacific Island Nations are ground zero as a result of these climatic challenges and the need for leadership, progressive solutions, and innovative technologies to save our island archipelago, pristine natural landscape, and unadulterated Pacific Ocean are critical for humanity’s existence in the 21 st century and future generations.

A 21st century ahupuaʻa embraces sustainable stewardship practices and the co-existence of human civilization with the earth’s biosphere in a manner that provides for a balanced environment with minimal exploitation of resources to sustain the world’s nations, peoples, and their economies. Sustainability challenges as well as long term goals strive for equilibrium or balance between the coexistence of humanity and natural environment while preserving such ecosystems in perpetuity.

As did the ancient ahupuaʻa system of stewardship provide for the socio-economic health, well-being, survival, and sustainability of Native Hawaiians for centuries. Those traditions and cultural knowledge are perpetuated today at the ʻIole Stewardship Center through inspired sustainable thinking and a model 21 st century ahupua`a where land is chief and man is steward.

Learn more about the Hawaiian ahupuaʻa system by scheduling a tour with us.

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