Lessons from the Past

What can the ancient Hawaiians teach us about preserving today's resources for tomorrow?

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Could these islands support a population like ours, currently around 1.3 million? Dorothy Pyle, professor of Hawaiian history at Maui Community College, says it’s possible they already have. “It’s a big debate,” she says, as to the population of ancient Hawai‘i. “Some say it was 1 million, others say 200,000. No one really knows how many people were here before Captain Cook.”

Hawaiians grew their own fruits and vegetables, and raised pigs, chickens, and small dogs for slaughter. They were adept at aquaculture, building great loko i‘a, or fishponds, in brackish water along the coast. Algae and microscopic marine life grew abundantly here, attracting fish small enough to swim through the makaha, the fishpond’s sluice gates. The makaha kept the big fish out, and when the smaller fish fattened up, they were caught inside the gates, ready for the taking.

Dr. Samuel M. ‘Ohukani‘ohi‘a Gon III, senior scientist and cultural advisor for the Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i, says the fishponds were intensively managed in places such as Pu‘uloa (Pearl Harbor) and along the southern shores of Moloka‘i. On land, as far as archeologists can determine, the Hawaiians also maximized their resources by growing taro—the staple of the Hawaiian diet—in all the ideal locations.

The Hawaiian Islands offered those early settlers a number of advantages, among them a temperate climate and a constant water supply. “In the Marquesas and Society Islands of Tahiti and Raiatea,” says Pyle, “they have less arable land, and sharper elevation changes.” In contrast, amphitheater valleys like Maui’s ‘Iao, Waihe‘e and Olowalu offered protected, ample land for growing enough to sustain the population.

“No doubt it was the Polynesian experience on the low islands,” writes Gon, “where you had to pull resources out of low, limestone atolls, that trained a sense of conservation and careful watch over resources.”

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