A whole island – mokupuni –was divided in smaller parts – moku. These moku were large, wedge-shaped and ran from the crest of a mountain to the shore. Oahu, for example, was divided into six moku. Each moku was further divided into ahupua`a. Like the moku, ahupua’a were wedge-shaped land sections, but narrower, that ran from mountains to the sea.
The size of an ahupua`a varied depending on the area’s resources. Poorer agricultural areas were split into larger ahupua`a in order to compensate for the shortcomings of the land. Each ahupua`a was ruled by an ali`i or local chief.
But the division of land did not stop with ahupua`a. Within ahupua’a were `ili — smaller divisions, perhaps two or three per ahupua`a. These ‘ili did not have to be contiguous. Noncontiguous pieces were called lele. Some of the ‘ili were arable and others not. Sections of the `ili that were arable were called mo’o. Agricultural units cultivated by locals were even smaller. Called kuleana, the size of these tracts depended on the fertility of the land. In other words, the land division used by ancient Hawaiians was remarkably fair. Ahupua`a not only were the core of ancient agriculture in Hawaii, they were central to the Hawaiian belief system. The land and spirituality were united in daily and seasonal life.
To be appreciated, it has to be understood that Ahupua’a were shaped by island geography. Each wedge-shaped ahupua`a running from the uplands to the sea followed the natural boundaries of a watershed. Each ahupua`a was carved out to contain the essential resources that a native Hawaiian community needed for sustenance. Each ahupua’a provided access to fish and salt as well as fertile land for farming of taro or sweet potatoes. Upslope areas provided land for growing koa and other trees. Villagers from the coast could trade fish or other foods for wood to build canoes and houses.
Stewardship of the land and its resources was provided by konohiki. Konohiki and also priests (kahuna) administered and enforced the all-important kapu (taboo) system. Kapus provided restrictions on: fishing certain species during certain seasons; gathering of certain plants; and many social interactions. In this way, ancient Hawaiian communities on each island maintained stable and sustainable lifestyles. This lifestyle encouraged a high level of artistic achievement and expression that continues to this day.