Ahupua’a Explained

Taken from an article by By Kealiʻiwahine Hokoana ( https://millhousemaui.com/ahupuaa-crops-fishponds/ )

Although specifically referring to the island of Maui in this article, the ahupua’a system is statewide and the principles of it apply to each ahupua’a.


Each of the Hawaiian islands is divided into moku, or districts. Maui has the following moku: Wailuku, Hāmākuapoko, Hāmākualoa, Koʻolau, Hāna, Kīpahulu, Kaupō, Kahikinui, Honuaʻula, Kula, Lahaina, Kaʻanapali.ahupuaa-diagram


Each moku is further divided into ahupuaʻa. *Ahu means altar and puaʻa means pig. The boundaries of an ahupuaʻa are marked with an altar of stones and an image of a pig. The altar is also used to pay tribute to the chief of the ahupuaʻa for the use of the land by the people.

Ahupuaʻa is a division of land that stretches from the mountain to the ocean. Think of it like a lemon meringue pie. If you cut a slice, there is the tippy top of the meringue like the mountain and a crust like the ocean shore.

 The reason an ahupuaʻa goes from the mountain to the ocean is because of its access to water. Every ahupuaʻa needs water to subsist. *Wai in Hawaiian means water. Waiwai in Hawaiian means wealth. If you have access to water you are wealthy.



At the very top of the ahupuaʻa is the lewa, which means sky, where the rain comes from to fill up the stream. A portion of the stream is diverted by an auwai which is a ditch that leads to loʻi kalo or taro patches. The taro patches need cold, swift moving water to thrive. The loʻi are built into the natural terraces of the land. The higher patches pass water to the lower terraces. The water from the lower terraces are then rerouted back to the stream.

When Polynesians first landed in Hawaiʻi they brought canoe plants. The canoe food plants are mountain apple, sugar cane, banana, sweet potato, yams, coconut, breadfruit, ape and taro (which we call kalo). The loʻi kalo are important because kalo was the main staple of the Hawaiian diet.


Kalo was given to us by the gods Wākea (the sky) and Hoʻohōkūlani (the stars). When they came together their first child was born a root named Hāloanakalaukapalili. That root was cast to the earth and from that root came the kalo. Their second child was born a man named Hāloa. He was sent to the earth to care for his brother the kalo. As long as man takes care of the kalo, he will survive.

Kalo is a living metaphor for family. A stalk is planted in the loʻi. From that stalk, a corm grows to fruition in about nine months. Also from that stalk, keiki, which means child(ren), will sprout. The whole cluster is called an ʻoha(na) which means family. The original stalk then becomes known as the makua which means the parent.
When harvesting kalo, you use two parts of the plant. The top heart-shaped leaf and the corm. A small piece of corm is left on the stalk and the stalk will be replanted and another generation of kalo will be born.

Both the leaf and the corm are edible, however they must be cooked thoroughly (for hours) before they are edible. They can be boiled, steamed or baked in an under ground oven called an imu. If either are under cooked your throat will become itchy and swollen. It will feel like you ate broken glass.


The cooked kalo can be made into poi. Back in the day, poi was made using a pōhaku kuʻi ʻai, a stone pounder and a papa kuʻi ʻai, a wooden board. The kalo was pounded, turned, mixed with water and pounded again and again until it became a sticky paste we call poi.

Today, most people buy poi. Instead of using a poi pounder and board, the manufacturer uses a corn meal grinder to make the poi. People’s taste preference for poi differ. Some people like fresh poi and others like varying degrees of sour. The color of the twist tie on the plastic bag of poi will tell you what day of the week the poi was made so you know how many days sour it is. Some people will eat poi that is so sour there is a thick crust of mold on the top. They simply crack the crust, mix it up and eat it. Think blue cheese, smell and all.

Loko iʻa – Fish Ponds

Loʻi kalo are a big part of the ahupuaʻa food system. Another big part is the loko iʻa which means fish ponds. Fish ponds are made in the ocean using a semi-circle rock wall. The rocks are intricately stacked so that they stay in place without mortar. A small gate is fixed in the wall. The gate is made of vertical wooden slats lashed together with cordage. The purpose of the gate is to allow small fish to swim inside the pond where the water is warmer and the food is plentiful. It’s a safe harbor from bigger fish who prey on them. hawaiian-fish-pond.jpg

Once the fish see how easy life is in the pond they tend to stay or they tend to leave and return. Eventually the fish will become too fat to leave through the wooden slats and will have no choice but to stay in the pond until they are harvested for food.


Back in the day, fish were regulated by the kapu system. The kapu system was the laws of the land. Fish and other food were part of this system to ensure that there was a time for the ahupuaʻa to replenish itself. So, for certain times of the year certain fish were kapu (prohibited) from eating. The penalty for breaking this kapu could be death. Some people may think this was a harsh penalty for a chief to issue, but think of it as your whole village’s food system being at stake. If one person or family broke the rule, there might not be another generation of food to continue to feed the people.

The kapu system was in place until 1819 when Kamehameha the sovereign ruler of the Hawaiian islands died. Two of his wives, Keōpūolani (the most sacred wife) and Kaʻahumanu (the favorite wife) in a public display broke the kapu system.

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