Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Hawai'i That Was: Lapakahi, the Kind of Place Where the Rest of Them Lived

The stories are always of the chiefs, the generals, and the kings. General Washington won the Revolutionary War. General Grant won the Civil War. Caesar ruled the world. We rarely hear the stories of the peasants, the commoners, the lower castes. Hawai'i isn't much different.
King Kamehameha I looms large in the history of the Hawaiian Islands, and justly so. Few kings have dominated the history of their time and place as he did. Many historical parks and monuments commemorate the accomplishments of he and his subjects. We explored one of them in a previous post, at Pu'ukohala Heiau. But what was life like for everyone else who colonized this island? Are their stories preserved?

One of the most intriguing stories to me of the colonization of the islands is the population estimates. Hawai'i today has a population of about 1.4 million people. They are supported by a massive influx of imported food and fuel. It is practically inconceivable that the present-day population could survive for very long if the importation of supplies were to cease for any extended period of time. The chaos would be unimaginable (although we have seen such horrible outcomes in war-torn areas in the modern era, such as Syria).
And yet...estimates of the pre-European contact population of the Hawaiian Islands ranges from 200,000 to 1,000,000! How in the world did they survive?
The Hawaiian Islands in their primeval state offered little for the survival of human settlers. There were fish, of course, and a few large birds like the geese (the nene). The geese had no real defense against hunting by humans, and probably would have disappeared in short order. Few of the native plants were edible, or easily cultivated. But humans don't "fit" into new environments, they alter the environments they invade to their own needs. The Polynesians who arrived between 200 AD-1200 AD were well skilled in geo-engineering the islands to meet their needs. The pioneering colonists brought pua'a (pig), moa (fowl), kalo (taro), maiʻa (banana), niu (coconut), and ulu (breadfruit). They also brought ko (sugarcane), and somehow, ʻuala (sweet potato). The latter is a mystery, as it is native to South America, a place with no known connections to the Polynesians.
As the agricultural fields expanded, so did the population. Support of such a dense population did in fact require a highly controlled society, and the Polynesians brought with them a concept of royalty and a hierarchy of kings/chiefs (ali'i), lesser chiefs and priests (kahuna), highly skilled workers, and commoners (Makaʻāinana). There was an underclass, similar to the untouchables caste, called the kauwā. They were often war captives, and were first in line when the time came for sacrifices to the gods. Order was maintained with a severe set of taboos, or kapu, that were strict to say the least. Stepping in the shadow of the king, or men eating with women could result in an instant death penalty (although there was an "out"; see a coming post about that).
There aren't so many monuments to the makaʻāinana, but we visited one such park on our recent journey to the islands. It's called Lapakahi State Historical Park, and it's located on the western Kohala coast, north from Pu'ukohala Heiau National Historic Site. It preserves the remains of a fishing village that was occupied from about 1200AD to 1800AD, a period of some 600 years.
As a Californian, and for that matter, a European-American, 600 years is a staggeringly long time. The entire "discovery" and development of the Americas took place in a similar time period, and in California, there are only a handful of structures that date back even 200 years (although Native Americans have a totally different perspective on that idea). And yet life went on for centuries in this small village. There were no doubt severe interruptions to daily life at times, as the settlement was probably caught between warring factions on many occasions.
The village site today is marked primarily by stone foundations and a few reconstructed homes (hale) and work areas. A guided 0.8 mile path winds through the site. One of the more interesting spots was the Ku'ula, a standing stone where offerings were left by the fishermen hoping for a big catch (below).
A Ku'ula, or offering stone at Lapakahi
In the tightly controlled society, there was a lot of local trade. The best agricultural sites were higher up the volcano, so the coastal town traded fish and salt for textiles and crops. Hollowed chunks of basalt were used to evaporate sea water to concentrate the salt. Several examples were set out along the trail (below).
Boulders used for making salt
In the rush of a Hawaiian vacation, a peaceful place like Lapakahi is easily missed. It is a great place to gain some insight into the lives of the makaʻāinana. I know that when I tour famous places, I am just as interested in the lives of the "normal" people who had to put up with the antics and wars of long-entrenched royalty (I'm thinking for instance of French or English kings and queens). Once in a while it's good to see a reconstructed medieval village instead of a royal castle.