Forest and Sea

Forest and Sea

The Polynesian settlers of the Hawaiian Islands were extremely knowledgeable about the forest and sea. They utilized a long list of native and Polynesian-introduced plants and animals for food, clothing, shelter, tools, and medicinal preparations as well as for creating religious and artistic items.

More than 1,000 years ago, Hawaiians were catching i‘a (fish) from the ocean, building and stocking extensive loko i‘a (fishponds), and cultivating lo‘i kalo, irrigated terraces of kalo (Colocasia esculenta, taro).

They collected shellfish such as ‘opihi (Cellana species, limpets), gathered pa‘akai (sea salt), and caught manu (birds) for food and for the birds’ beautiful feathers, which were used to create elaborate and intricate featherwork, including ‘ahu ‘ula (feathered capes and cloaks) and mahiole (feather-crested helmets).

Ancient Hawaiians also raised pua‘a (Sus scrofa, pigs), moa (Gallus gallus gallus, chickens), and ‘īlio (Canis familiaris, dogs), all of which they had brought with them to the Hawaiian Islands on their voyaging canoes. From shore to mountain peak, the natural environment of the Islands supplied the early Hawaiian settlers with a great variety of different food sources, and usually provided enough for everyone.

‘A‘ohe loea i ka wai ‘ōpae.

It is no feat to catch shrimps in a freshet.

You don’t need experience to do that job. Shrimps were often taken in great numbers by means of wicker platforms placed across mountain streams. In time of freshets they would be swept onto these platforms and gathered.

(Pukui: 176-21)

Modern researchers continue to discover how particular traditions and practices used by ancient Hawaiians helped to sustain their ways of living, preserving their land and sea environment so it would continue to provide for them. The pre-contact Hawaiian culture was a highly refined Pacific Island culture unlike any other.

Ancient Hawaiians gathered plants from all the varied Island habitats, from the high rainforests to the coastal plains to the limu growing offshore on the coral reefs. Fish were caught using a hook and line, and also with nets, traps and spears.

Many different trees were harvested for wood, including koa (Acacia koa) for canoes, ‘ōhi‘a lehua (Metrosideros species) for house posts, wiliwili (Erythrina sandwicensis, Hawaiian coral tree) for papa he‘e nalu (surfboards), and ‘iliahi (Santalum species, sandalwood) for scenting kapa (tapa) barkcloth.

Many plants served as offerings to Hawaiian gods. ‘A‘ali‘i (Dodonaea viscosa, Hawaiian hopseed bush), lama (Diospyros species, ebony), ‘ie‘ie (Freycinetia arborea), and maile (Alyxia oliviformis) were considered sacred to the hula goddess Laka; kohekohe (Eleocharis species, spikerush), mai‘a (Musa species, banana plant) and kalo (Colocasia esculenta, taro) were used as offerings at loko i‘a (fishponds); the fruiting branches of ‘ōhelo (Vaccinium species) were thrown into Kīlauea Volcano as an offering to Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes.

The Hawaiian goddess associated with lei making is Kukuena, whose daughter Laka may take the form of ‘ilima (Sida fallax). According to legend, ‘ilima was also the flower lei worn by the goddess Hina when she was able to escape from the cave of the monster eel Kuna Loa with the help of her son, the god Māui.

It was Māui who originally pulled the Hawaiian Islands up from the sea, and Māui who lassoed the rays of the sun atop Haleakalā, making the sun move more slowly across the sky so Hina had more time to dry her kapa barkcloth.

Ancient Hawaiians also cultivated many plants they brought with them on their voyaging canoes. ‘Ulu (Artocarpus altilis, breadfruit), kalo (Colocasia esculenta, taro) and ‘uala (Ipomoea batatas, sweet potatoes) were grown for food. Ipu (Lagenaria siceraria, bottle gourds) were used as containers and musical instruments.

Noni (Morinda citrifolia, Indian mulberry) and ‘awa (Piper methysticum, kava) were cultivated for medicinal and ceremonial uses. Wauke (Broussonetia papyrifera, paper mulberry) was grown to provide a fiber source for making kapa (tapa) barkcloth. The kukui tree (Aleurites moluccana, candlenut) had various medicinal uses, and the oil of the kukui nut was burned as the primary source of light in ancient Hawai‘i.

No other culture cultivated kalo (Colocasia esculenta, taro) as skillfully and intensively as the ancient Hawaiians. They developed many varieties of kalo suitable for different soil types and climates found throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Particular varieties were cultivated for specific uses, including dyes and medicines as well as food.

The ancient Hawaiians were extremely skilled botanists, hand-pollinating various plant species and using a sophisticated classification system with regional and localized names for specific varieties, including more than 70 varieties of mai‘a (Musa species, banana plant) and hundreds of varieties of kalo (Colocasia esculenta, taro). They also developed among the sweetest of all ‘uala (Ipomoea batatas, sweet potatoes).