Great changes in land use have occurred in Hawaii since the first European settlers. The native economy was founded on subsistence farming and fishing; the present-day economy on plantation agriculture and services for tourists and the military. The Hawaiians of the past were entirely self-sufficient; the residents of the Territory of the present are dependent upon imports and exports.
The Hawaiians, members of the Polynesian race, came to the islands perhaps 1000 to 1500 years ago, and introduced all the food crops and the pig. Under a state of nature only sea food and a few wild plants, for example, the tree fern used as a source of starch, were available.
The Hawaiians lived in villages favorably located for obtaining food, and they preferred sites within sight and sound of the sea. Their houses were rectangular in shape and were thatched with pili grass over a framework of wood. Stone was not part of the construction of buildings except in the heiaus (temples), which were built largely of rocks. The food supply came primarily from planted crops--taro, yams, sweet potatoes, and bananas--and from fishing. Other plant foods were the arrowroot, breadfruit, coconut, sugar cane, pandanus, seaweeds and the tree fern for eating, and kukui nuts for seasoning and oil. Pigs were raised in moderate numbers, but most of their flesh was reserved for feasts. Taro, like rice, is best grown on water-covered patches of ground on the valley floors, and such areas were the most thickly populated by the native Hawaiians of any in the islands. Some upland taro was raised without irrigation in rainy locations, and yams and sweet potatoes were planted on moderately dry uplands; but most of the land now in sugar and pineapples was originally covered by forests, and little was cultivated by the natives. In addition to food plants, the paper mulberry was grown, and from its inner bark was made the bark cloth called kapa (tapa).
The Hawaiians utilized the forests for timber from which canoes, the framework of houses, and wooden utensils and implements were made; for materials such as olona fiber for making fishline, ti leaves for wrappings, luahala (pandanus) leaves for plaiting mats and baskets, and coir from coconuts for cordage; for the feathers of birds from which robes and decorations were made; and to a small extent for gathering food, although wild animals did not exist. Stone, wood, shells, and bone were manufactured into artifacts, weapons, and household articles because the Hawaiians had no metals.
Fish, shellfish, and other sea food were important to the Hawaiians, who built stone walls into shallow water to enclose scores of ponds in which mullet and other fish were raised. As late as 1853 there were 53 fishponds on Molokai, and many were also found on Oahu, Maui, and Kauai. Some fishponds are still operated.
The ideally situated village possessed low land for taro and a water supply to irrigate the fields; a coastal strip for fishing, fishponds, house sites, and the launching of canoes; some uplands suitable for sweet potatoes and yams; and forested mountains that could furnish timber and feathers. Nearly all the original population, estimated at 200,000, lived along the coastal lowlands and in the valleys. Until after the middle of the nineteenth century Hawaii was the most populous island, but Oahu has ranked first for the last seventy-five years because of the rapid growth of Honolulu. Only Niihau and Kahoolawe have lost population compared with ancient times, although certain sections on other islands have become depopulated, for example, windward Molokai and the Napali coast of Kauai.