From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published May 17, 2011 02:36 PM

Ancient Hawaiian Farms

The original settlers of Polynesia migrated through South-East Asia and Indonesia across Melanesia, before settling the Polynesian islands beginning in 1000 BC. Hawaii was one of the last island groups to be settled. Archaeological evidence indicates the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii from the Marquesas between 500 and 700 AD. Hawaii has often been thought of as an earthly paradise. Still people must live and eat. A pattern of earthen berms, spread across a northern peninsula of the big island of Hawaii, is providing archeologists with clues to exactly how residents farmed in paradise long before Europeans arrived at the islands.


"Archeologically, this kind of research is really hard to do in most places since there is rarely a signature for the agricultural activity, or a strong connection between the remains of a house and a plot of farmland," explained, Julie Field, an assistant professor of anthropology at Ohio State University.

Field, along with colleagues from California and New Zealand, has spent three field seasons unearthing the remnants of an agricultural gridwork that dates back nearly 600 years. The pattern was formed by a series of earthen walls, or berms, which served as windbreaks, protecting the crops.

During the summer, trades prevail more than 90% of the time, sometimes persisting throughout an entire month. However, in the winter, January through March, trade winds may occur only 40% to 60% of the time. Though pleasantly brisk and refreshingly cool on land, strong, gusty trade winds can cause problems for mariners and for agriculture. Blowing from the NE through East direction, these strong trades funnel through the major channels between the islands at speeds 5-20 knots faster than the speeds over the open ocean.

"In this part of Hawaii, the trade winds blow all the time, so the berms are there to protect the crops from the winds.  The main crop was sweet potato which likes dry loose soil. The berms protect the soil from being blown away." Field said.

Previous work by other researchers has radiocarbon dated organic material found in the berms, establishing a timeline for when the agricultural system was first built. Over time, more walls were built, subdividing the original agricultural plots into smaller and smaller parcels.

At the same time, other researchers were able to date materials from household sites of the early Hawaiians, and link those dates to the building of specific agricultural plots.

"Our study is unique in that we can trace the activities of very, very small groups of people and, from that, try to glean the larger processes of society. We want to look at parts of Hawaii and treat them as a model for the evolution of Hawaiian society."

This showed that individual households that farmed the land expanded over time and then separated into new households as the population grew.

Similar to the feudal system of Europe, a portion of the crop surplus was always designated for the chiefs. Historical evidence has suggested that the great chiefs owned all the land in the areas which they controlled. They allocated control of portions of the land to their kinsmen and retainers, who then apportioned land to the commoners.

"This suggests to us that the field system was originally put in place probably by individual households that produced crops for their own consumption. Our study is unique in that we can trace the activities of very, very small groups of people and, from that, try to glean the larger processes of society," Field said.

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