Maui News

UH research: Hawaiians’ wisdom and love of ʻāina evident in traditional agriculture

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An agroforestry map of the Hawaiian Islands details water supplies and forest areas. The maps were used as part of research by a University of Hawaiʻi team investigating the distribution of Hawaiʻi’s agroforestry. PC: University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

A University of Hawaiʻi team of researchers is gaining a more insightful understanding of how Hawaiians in ancient times grew food in wetlands and drylands.

The team was led by Noa Lincoln, an associate researcher in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and principal investigator of the Indigenous Cropping Systems laboratory. The researchers released five studies examining the distribution of Hawaiʻi’s agroforestry, the purposeful integration of trees and crops (or livestock) together. 

Previous studies suggested that Native Hawaiians sustained their population on a mere 6% of land alteration, according to a release of the studies by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. However, the latest study published in Frontiers suggests that when accounting for agroforestry in addition to the range of other agricultural strategies in pre-colonial Hawaiʻi, Native Hawaiians may have altered closer to 22–29% of the land area. 


“While some may take this to mean that Hawaiians weren’t as sustainable as they are held up to be, I see it as the opposite,” Lincoln said in a UH news release. “The current narrative is just that our ancestors were walking lightly upon the land—that they didn’t change the landscape much. I see this work as saying that yes, they changed large amounts of the landscape, but they did it in a way that preserved ecosystem function and health.”

“They were not walking lightly upon the landscape, they were walking intelligently,” said Lincoln.

Efforts to understand traditional agriculture have focused on the most intensive wetland and dryland cultivation because these forms of agriculture leave behind physical infrastructure that can be observed and mapped by archaeologists. In agroforestry systems, trees are the infrastructure. 


“These [wetland and dryland agriculture] were important building blocks, but we knew they were incomplete,” said Lincoln. “There were huge population centers, such as Hāmākua and Puna regions on Hawaiʻi Island that were showing no agriculture at all. And we know from our elders that these areas were supported primarily through agroforestry practices.”

Taro cultivation shows modern agroforestry restorations of traditional systems. PC: University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

To fill in gaps of knowledge about traditional practices, PhD student Tiffany Lee georeferenced 19th century maps depicting traditional agroforestry. This work confirmed that current models do not capture agroforestry practices. The findings, published in Ecology & Society, demonstrated that agroforestry was widespread across the islands and provided an important dataset to start working with. 

Another study published in Agricultural Systems focused on the kukui tree (Aleurites moluccanus). The patterns of kukui on the landscape emerged as indicators of traditional agroforestry. In collaboration with Qi Chen, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environment, the team analyzed kukui canopy across the state in the cover story of Pacific Science, uncovering patterns that hinted at an enduring imprint of traditional Hawaiian agroforestry on the landscape.


With data from historical maps and insights from the kukui tree, the team had the pieces to build spatial models on traditional agroforestry. A study published in Human Ecology suggested that agroforestry constituted the dominant footprint of traditional production systems in terms of landmass.


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