Ancient Hawaiian agriculture studied

May 16, 2011 at 9:13 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio, May 16 (UPI) -- Archaeologists say a pattern of earthen berms on the big island of Hawaii shows how ancient Hawaiians farmed long before Europeans arrived in the islands.

Ohio State University anthropologist Julie Field, working with colleagues from California and New Zealand, said their findings suggest simple, practical decisions made by individual households were eventually adopted by the ruling class as a means to improve agricultural productivity, a university release reported Monday.

The researchers unearthed the remnants of an agricultural gridwork that dates back nearly 600 years, a pattern formed by a series of earthen walls, or berms, which served as windbreaks to protect the crops.

"In this part of Hawaii, the trade winds blow all the time, so the berms are there to protect the crops from the winds," Field said. "The main crop was sweet potato, which likes dry loose soil. The berms protect the soil from being blown away."

Similar to the feudal system of Europe, a portion of any crop surplus was always designated for the local chiefs, the researchers said.

"This suggests to us that the field system was originally put in place probably by individual households that produced crops for their own consumption," Field said.

"It was then appropriated by the chiefs and turned into more of a surplus production system, where they demanded that the land be put into production and more people would produce more surplus food," she said.

"Our study is unique in that we can trace the activities of very, very small groups of people and, from that, try to glean the larger processes of society," Field said.

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