Introduction to Kona Hema (South Kona)

Kona Hema, looking south from Kealakekua to Hōnaunau Bay.

On the South Kona Coast of Hawai’i lie Kahauloa, Keʻei Iki, Keʻei Nui and Honaunau ahupua’a (land divisions). These ahupua’a were critically important for the survival of the people of Hawai’i. In ancient times the lands of South Kona flourished, with ‘oihana mahi’ai (agriculture) and lawai’a (fishing).

The sunshine in the morning, cloud cover in the afternoon and light rainfall in the evening, combined with the area’s rich volcanic soil, made it ideal for farming. The pristine and calm near-ocean waters provided perfect fishing conditions. Within the time of our kupuna kahiko (ancestors), most of the landscape of the South Kona region was used for ‘oihana mahi’ai. Growing in this rich volcanic soil was ulu (breadfruit), ʻuala (sweet potato), mala kalo (dry land taro), mai’a (banana), ki (ti-leaf), ko (sugar cane), and many laʻau lapaʻau (medicinal plants). The shoreline during that time was abundant with many different varieties of iʻa (near shore and deep sea fish), wana (sea urchin), opihi (limpet), loli (sea cucumber) and one of the most important, paʻakai (Hawaiian salt). Pa’akai was used for ancient ceremonies, healing, preserving food, and in laau lapaau (the practice of medicine).

The South Kona coast from Kaʻawaloa (slightly north of Kealakekua) through Hōnaunau had the largest population of people in ancient times. During the 1400s and 1500s, Ehukaimalino was the chief of Kona. During his reign, however, he was defeated in battle by Umi, the son of Liloa, who was the supreme ruler of Hawaiʻi. After the war, Umi moved from Waipiʻo to Kona, uniting the island of Hawaiʻi.

At that time there were no diseases in Hawaiʻi. During the late 1700s, when Captain James Cook came to Hawaii, the area’s population had grown to 25,000 with more than a 1,000 hale (homes) in the South Kona region. With the arrival of Cook and other foreign ships came brought many diseases: chicken pox, measles, mumps, venereal and other disease.

This project is the result of a community public-private partnership to raise awareness about the rich history and heritage of the South Kona area, particularly the cultural practices and survival of the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) people from ancient times until today. The ahupuaʻa concept of land divisions, usually pie-shaped wedges extending from the mountains to the near-shore reefs, was used by Hawaiians to manage their natural and cultural resources and sustain themselves during times of drought. The ahupuaʻa system sustained the people for hundreds of years until the arrival of westerners who influenced land development in the islands and brought diseases that decimated the native population.