The Kona Field System
Early Hawaiians probably visited Kona on seasonal fishing and birding trips from home bases on the windward side of Hawai‘i. They built shelters along the coast and took advantage of the calm waters and abundant fish of the Kona coast.
Eventually, these seasonal visits became year round stays for some. These settlers planted crops in clearings in the forests of the rainy slopes, lining large stones along the contours to form terraces and building walled fields where the soil was good. The farmers learned to make the land productive and permanent settlements were well established in Kona by AD 1200.
In the 14th or 15th century, ‘Umi, son of Līloa, fought the Kona chief Ehunuikaimalino and united the island of Hawai‘i. ‘Umi moved his court from Waipi‘o to Kona. He was renowned as a farmer and organizer as much as a soldier. At about the time of ‘Umi, agriculture in Kona developed the characteristic pattern that is still evident in the stone work remains at Amy Greenwell Garden. Today, archaeologists call the unique method of farming in this area the Kona Field System.
Kona was divided into long, narrow fields, running mauka-makai [link to definition]. In the lower reaches of the tillable land, at elevations about 500 feet to 1000 feet above sea level, a neatly planted and well tended grove of breadfruit half mile wide and 20 miles long grew.
Sweet potatoes grew among the breadfruit. Above the breadfruit grove, at elevations where the rainfall reached 60-70 inches or more, were fields of dry land taro. The base of the taro stem develops into a starchy tuber from which poi is made, the favorite staple of the Hawaiian diet.
The long, narrow taro fields were lined with ti and sugar cane, and farmers mulched their taro beds, timed their plantings, and selected their crops with a careful eye to the weather, soil type, and differences in variety.
The population of Kona grew quickly, doubling every 100 years or less. By the time Captain Cook arrived, probably 25,000 people lived in Kona, perhaps more. The field system took up all the tillable land by then, and cropping cycles were frequent.
There was a well maintained network of trails, one major trail along the coast, and another at about the elevation of the current highway. These major trails were connected by numerous mauka-makai trails, and people traveled freely throughout the region. The calm waters of Kona made canoe travel easy as well.
Large settlements grew up along the coast—the settlements at Ka‘awaloa and Kealakekua, directly below the Garden, were the two largest settlements on the island at the time of foreign contact.
The Kealakekua settlement stretched along the coast from Nāpo‘opo‘o to Ke‘ei, a mile and a half of perhaps more than a thousand structures with paved pathways between them, game fields, and shade trees. Hiki‘au heiau on Kealakekua Bay and Pu‘u honua o Hōnaunau were two well known religious sites, and on the slopes above were numerous lesser heiau and shrines.
Agriculture supported a thriving population. Amy Greenwell Garden is in the center of the 50 square mile network of farms and gardens that stretched across the uplands of Kona. Visitors to the Garden can see the long stone field boundaries, called kuaiwi, and envision the well kept farms of the Hawaiian horticulturists.
They will see smaller planting mounds and here and there catch a the glint of sunlight reflecting off a piece of volcanic glass, a cutting tool left behind by a farmer some 500 years ago. The Kona Field System was a wonder of the world in its day and remains an instructive example for our times.