The concept of private property was unknown to ancient Hawaiians, but they did follow a complex system of land division. All land was controlled ultimately by the highest chief or king who held it in trust for the entire population. Each island or mokupuni, was divided in smaller districts called moku. Each moku was divided into smaller land sub-divisions called ahupua’a, an area of land which extended from the high mountains down to the ocean.

The traditional subdivision system had four hierarchical levels:

  • mokupuni (island)
  • moku (district subdivision)
  • ahupuaʻa (self sustaining division)
  • ʻili (function areas)


Ahupua’a had definite boundaries, usually of natural features, such as mountain ridges, gulches, and streams. Boundary markers for ahupua’a were traditionally heaps of stones used to put offers to the island chief, which was often a pig. Hence the name Ahupua’a. From the Hawaiian language, ahu means heap or stack and pua’a is pig.

Ahupua’a were self-sustaining. Mountain rainforest produced fresh water, koa and other timber for canoes and building structures. Fertile lands provided agriculture & farming. The ocean shoreline provided fish and open ports.

Within the ahupua’a were smaller divisions called ‘ili which constituted the estate of the chief. Each ‘ili contained parcels of land called lele. Lele defined the distinct sections. The sea-side, flat-lands, and the forest.

Inside of lele parcels were Mo’o. Mo’o were the agricultural areas. Smaller yet, were the kuleana, or land tracts used by the common people for cultivation of crops.