How ancient Hawaiians mastered sustainable living

Did you know that sustainability in Hawaii is deeply rooted in its culture and history?

This truth stretches back to ancient Hawaiians, who, despite not having a word for sustainability, created ingenious systems as a way to thrive in Hawaii’s totally unique and isolated ecology. Today we’re going to cover 4 of those systems:


Survival in ancient Hawaii depended on living harmoniously with nature​​ and managing resources. The ahupua’a system made this possible. Ahupua’a is a land division method that subdivided land from the mountains to the sea, and usually included complete watersheds and marine resources.

Each of the Hawaiian islands are divided into ahupua’a, which start at the top of the local mountain and follow a boundary line (often a local stream) all the way to the shore. Ahupua’a varied in size and included a lowland cultivated area and upland forested area.

Hawaiians recognized the ahupua’a system as part of sacred interconnectedness of the land, water, clouds, ocean and all of nature in which they were a part of.

Loko iʻa

Kalahuipua’a fishpond in South Kohala, Hawai’i Island

Integral to the ahupua’a were the more than 400 fishponds across the islands. These fishponds, known as loko iʻa, showcase Hawaiian’s sophisticated use of rocks, corals, vines, and woods to create sustainable aquaculture food systems​​​​.

The Hawaiian loko iʻa possess a level of sophistication renowned across the Pacific and the world. They were constructed over shallow regions of a reef flat and encircled by a modest wall made of lava rock, extending from the shoreline. This special environment was perfect for nurturing various species of fish to eat, including mullet.

The Hawaiians also devised ingenious techniques that simplified the process of catching these fish.

On Maui, you can observe and even volunteer to help restore the Kalepolepo Fishpond, also known as Koʻieʻie.


Kalo farm on Kaua’i

At the core of ancient Hawaiian agricultural practices were three distinct farming systems: the lo’i or irrigated pond fields, traditional dryland farming, and the rain-dependent agroforestry in the lush, forested valleys.

Kalo (taro) was the primary crop and food staple. It was (and still is) grown on mountain slopes, valleys, and especially in lo’i, which offer ideal aquatic conditions for growing.

Hawaiian farmers created intelligent irrigation systems, including auwai (irrigation ditches) and dams, as well as an innovative form of hydraulic engineering that moved sediments from nearby stream beds to create fertile soil for kalo terraces that were planted further up the valley.

Modern research has revealed that only 6% of Hawai’i’s landmass could produce over 1 million metric tons of food, which was enough to feed the approximately 1.2 million Native Hawaiians inhabiting Hawaii before contact with Westerners.


In addition to fishponds, ancient Hawaiians were expert fishermen. They crafted hooks from bone, turtle shells, and whale ivory, and used hook and line for catching sharks, octopus, and medium-sized fish. They also crafted artificial lures from cowrie shells, and basket-like traps for catching smaller fish and shrimp in streams.

Spears were also essential to fishing, and were often used with torches at night to attract fish in shallow waters. Some Hawaiians even swam underwater and used a spear to catch rockfish.

The most favored fishing method was net fishing, which brought in larger hauls of fish. Net fishing was also better for group fishing in shallow waters near the shore. These nets were often made from plant fibers or rope and dyed with natural dyes like purple from the Koki’o plant, were less visible to fish.

Image credits: Micah Alameda, Jakob Owens, Studio Kealaula, Daniele Nabissi, Braden Jarvis, _tiffany

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