Social Landscapes

        Understanding the historical development of natural and social landscapes is central to studying the evolution of complex society. One of the primary goals of my social landscape research has been to identify change and persistence in daily life and ritual practices using oral traditions and archaeology. The examples of this work described below are drawn from research on the prehistoric and early historic periods (A.D. 800-1866) on the Kalaupapa Peninsula, Moloka‘i Island, Hawai‘i.

The Origins of a Social Landscape


Oral traditions suggest that after several generations of island-scale political unity on a par with other major islands, Moloka‘i unexpectedly broke down into two rival district level polities: Ko‘olau and Kona. Following a civil war that ended in the defeat of the Ko‘olau polity, the island briefly rejoined under a single ruler only to be quickly occupied by chiefs from O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i Islands.



 Traditional Community and District Boundaries, Moloka‘i Island, Hawai‘i.


            The region’s rich oral traditions are key to tracking the political history of Moloka‘i, especially when considered as collected “social memory.” In anthropology, social memory is frequently implicated in questions of identity and the invention of tradition, as a political tool, and in the creation of “place”. Researchers have stressed the importance not only of what is remembered but what is forgotten, the latter usually attributed to the need to ‘smooth over’ portions of the past to maintain or create social cohesion. In the case of Moloka‘i, a long gap in the chiefly genealogy is suggestive of this kind of process.




A temple (heiau) located on the Kalaupapa Peninsula at the boundary between two community territories. This map shows the site's distinctive elaboration of the northeast corner and a purposeful orientation of the structure in relation to cardinal directions.


In the Hawaiian Islands, sites of chiefly power are rarely interpreted as permanent government facilities due to historic period evidence of high mobility practiced by royal courts. In such a system, the primary permanent agents of the political system in any one community would have been the priestly class since chiefs would move their entourage around the landscape to allow for flexibility in tribute collection.

Fortunately, a 1909 survey of ritual sites on Moloka‘i – including a remarkable number of well preserved sites in the Kalaupapa region - gives us a rare bridge linking oral traditions and archaeology.



Several hypothesized astronomical observations that could have been made from a temple (heiau) site on the Kalaupapa Peninsula.



In addition, using a combination of data on temple orientation and viewshed, the islets of Mōkapu and ‘Ōkala off the eastern coast the peninsula have been identified as likely being referenced, architecturally speaking, in the construction of ritual sites.

These islets dominate the eastern horizon and at one large structure interpreted as a temple (heiau), its particular orientation and location puts it in line with the place on the horizon where the star cluster Makali‘i (Pleiades) annually rises at sunset directly over the offshore islet of Mōkapu. Known in Western traditions as the acronychal rising of Pleiades, this specific stellar phenomenon is cited in ethnohistoric sources as marking the start of the makahiki season when tribute would have been collected as a chiefly procession traveled around the island.



This photograph shows the sun rising over Mōkapu at the summer solstice. At this time of year the sun has reached its northernmost point on its annual track across the eastern sky.


Also from this same location the sunrise on the summer solstice appears over the northern side of Mōkapu. At the equinox, the sun would appear over the southern edge of nearby ‘Ōkala. Thus, together these observations on landmarks in the eastern sky would have allowed for the regular coordination of the lunar calendar with the seasonal and festival calendars.