byWilliam K. Kikuchi

Society for American Archaeology

Kauai Community College 

Forty-Third Annual Meeting


Hawaiian aquaculture was a prehistoric native innovation. Its roots were to be found in the development of irrigated agricultural pondfields. Architectonic aquacultural sites, whether found as inland pondfields or along coastal areas, were simply considered to be extensions of agricultural technology. The evolution of pondfields and fishponds had a significant ecological and cultural impact on the native society. Ecologically, pondfields and fishponds became artificial estuaries enriching the natural riverine and marine environments. Culturally, their evolution paralleled the development of the elite class and, increasingly, became one of the symbols and manifestations of religious, political and economic power.

For those archaeologists and historians whose area of specialization is the Hawaiian Islands, questions concerning the origin and functions of Hawaiian aquaculture are vital for an understanding of the development of the highly integrated, stratified, structurally complex chiefdoms of prehistoric Hawaii (Sahlins 1958; Goldman 1970). Aquaculture and its associated architectonic features were innovations in Hawaii for which no precedents are known throughout the rest of Oceania.

The process of fish culture is of respectable antiquity. In and around the centers of domestication of plants and animals in the Middle East, China and South East Asia were found emphases toward fish culture. The earliest documented aquacultural ventures can be traced to Egypt at around 2500 B.C. (Maar, Mortimer, and Van Der Lingen 1966:7). China had carp (CyTinus carpio) culture dating 2000 B.C. (Ibid. Pinchot 1970:15), and the adjoining areas of Japan, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia also witfidisdd extensive aquacultural undertakings (Smith 1925; Tang and Chen 1957; Pillay; 10670,10dach 196R, Iversen 1968; Pinchot 1970). A large gap occurs between the aforementioned areas and the rest of the Pacific Ocean, where no aquacultural ventures are to be found with the exception of Hawaii.


Oceania is composed of three large geographical areas roughly based on cultural boundaries: Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. All are part of a common geological, geographical, geological and cultural continuum.

Isolated in the northernmost tip of Polynesia are the islands of Hawaii. Over a period of some 1,300 years since their initial settlement, a sophisticated, highly integrated, incipient state-like society evolved in the Hawaiian Islands. Within this short time-span, aquaculture also evolved; became integrated into the political-economic and religious system; and thrived well into modern times. Where did the concept of fish culture in Hawaii come from, in view of the fact that it is lacking in all the culturally related areas of Oceania?

Looking at a map, we see that Oceania is rimmed with societies that were technologically and economically advanced: South East Asia; the Americas; and Japan, China and Korea. Already by A.D. 500 many societies in these areas had maritime cultures. Was fish culture, perhaps, introduced, from any of these areas via trans-Pacific migrations? By all probability, only the latter two general areas could have had any possible direct trans-Pacific influence on Hawaiian tautology. South East Asia obviously can be disregarded because of its prevailing current patterns, which also holds true for Central and South America. Drift voyages of Oriental boats had a good chance of reaching the Hawaiian Islands. However, if the Asiatics did introduce the concept of aquaculture to Hawaii, why was it not found also along the coast of North America where the majority of drift voyages most likely would have ended? For the time being, we rule out both the Asiatic and the American sources of influence.

The author believes the seeds of Hawaiian aquaculture are to be found in the general cultural base of Oceania itself. There are three artifacts which are directly related to the earliest forms of fish culture in Oceania. These are fishtraps, holding ponds, agricultural pondfields.

The ubiquitous fishtrap or weir, was found on all types of islands: high volcanic and continental islands, and all the types of calcareous atolls (Wiens 1960:16-17). They all shapes and sizes; were constructed of both organic and inorganic materials; and were found in and along rivers, streams, lakes and ponds, and along the fringes of the sea.
The many forms of traps and weirs seem to have been a function of the local
philosophy of trapping-fish. These structures were, in essence, fish lanes or fish guides which, because of their function, had to have one end that was open to the sea to catch fish either at the ebb or the flow- of the tide. Each form and part had a native descriptive name, and ownership was with families or village groups.

Often associated with fishtraps were totally enclosed structures made of stone and/or coral. These were the holding ponds, so named because their primary function was to store the excess catch for a very brief time. Many of these holding ponds were manmade and very small in size, while the larger ones were naturally occurring ponds along the coast. Some of the smaller holding ponds may also have served as fishtraps when at high tide the sea completely inundated them, trapping fish and crustaceans as the tide ebbed. Normally, all traps, weirs and holding ponds projected out slightly above the highest tide line.

The embryonic concept of fish  culture in Hawaii seems to have evolved out of the concept of fishtraps and holding ponds, brought by the initial settlers to the Islands. More directly influential; however, was the agricultural pondfield, a feature most commonly associated with taro (Colocasia esculenta). Whereas both dryland and wetland types of taro cultivation were found throughout Oceania, it was only in Hawaii that fields were extensively and intensively irrigated. Small, flooded taro plots served is model aquariums in which select types of fish and crustaceans could be stocked, grown and harvested with a minimum amount of effort. When irrigated, even minimally, the pondfield became an enriched biological machine, an agricultural estuary providing nutrients to life forms both inside and outside the boundaries of the field.


The Hawaiians considered all aspects of aquaculture to be part of agriculture. Aquaculture was agriculture in that the Hawaiians seeded or stocked their taro plots with choice fry, weeded or cleaned them of seaweeds and predatory fish, fertilized it, and harvested the crop.

As the pondfield technology became more sophisticated, the idea of fish agriculture probably progressed toward the sheltered coastal areas of the Islands. Almost all naturally occurring bodies of water were utilized for fish culture, and where none were available, walls were built to create fishponds where the geography permitted. The similarities between fishponds and pondfields were:
1) both had walls;
2) the growing medium was water;
3) both had a supply of fresh water, either through irrigation or natural seepage; and
4) they contained grates or gates to control the flow of water.


Each pond, be it a pondfield or fishpond, became an artificial estuary in which a complex web of numerous interrelated food chains occurred. Not only the pond itself, but also its surrounding environment became increasingly and continuously enriched. Besides fish, crustaceans and birds were attracted to these sites, extracting nutrients from them, while at the same time fertilizing them.

Agricultural pondfields and aquacultural fishponds were further similar in that both were labor intensive in their construction and periodic maintenance. Only a strong source of group control could effectively undertake the constructioan of large fishponds or even the redesign and reconstruction of natural lakes and ponds for aquacultural purposes.

Whereas the raising of fish in irrigated pondfields or even in naturally occurring fishponds probably was a fairly simple, family oriented activity, such was not true for the large, manmade fishponds. Because the construction and maintenance were so highly labor intensive, requiring literally thousands of people, it can be hypothesized that the advent and evolution of aquaculture in Hawaii paralleled and reflected the political and economic power of the chiefs.

The many fishponds provided fresh fish of many types, at any time of the day or night during all seasons and in any climatic conditions for the ruling elite. The produce of the ponds were the symbol of the chief's economic power. Its use showed the power of the chief for the welfare of his "kingdom" and/or his subjects. Food was power.

Preliminary archaeological work on fishponds indicate that at least on O'ahu, fishponds were being constructed by A.D. 1100. On Kaua'i, fishponds may have been utilized by A.D. 1350. These dates parallel the period of pondfield development and the increasingly poltico-economic sophistication of the Hawaiian chiefdom on the major islands. Native aquaculture was influenced by the socio-political and economic growth of the chiefs and as it intensified, aquacultural ventures intensified and spread throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

The model presented here may lend itself to archaeological testing. The author has proposed a project to explore the possibility of gathering coring samples from aquacultural sites in order to obtain chronological, polynological and environmental information. A multidisciplinary approach using geological and oceanographic techniques will be made. The project will be carried out on the Island of Kauai.