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Hawaii’s hinterland culture a model for adaptation in face of changing climate

  • Nick Belluzzo poses under a magnolia tree on the William & Mary campus
    Into the hinterlands:  Nick Belluzzo, a Ph.D. candidate in William & Mary’s Department of Anthropology, is studying the remote territory of Manukā in Hawaii. He says such communities could have lessons for future civilizations about how to subsist in a changing climate.  Photo by Adrienne Berard
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Nick Belluzzo’s first view of the structure came from space. A strange assembly of walls appeared in satellite imagery, clearly constructed in a V-shape beside a volcanic sinkhole. 

“I was like ‘this is unusual,’” Belluzzo said, “so I went out there.”

“Out there” is really, really out there. It’s a region that has a reputation of being the Wild West of Hawaii. Belluzzo, a Ph.D. candidate in William & Mary’s Department of Anthropology, is studying the remote territory of Manukā. The area is mostly nature reserve and extends from the coastline to 5,500 feet of elevation, up the slopes of the volcano Mauna Loa.

By the time of Western Contact in Hawaii in 1778, Manukā had developed its own regional sociopolitical structure outside the elite power structures of two neighboring chiefdoms. From prehistory to today, Manukā has been an environmentally uncertain region, Belluzzo explained, which makes it an ideal candidate for his research. Belluzzo is studying how the small village communities on the island’s hinterlands adapted to their environment while maintaining a degree of social and political autonomy. 

“We have a good understanding of the royal centers of Hawaii, because those were sites of power,” Belluzzo said. “What we need to understand is the other side of that relationship, which are these decentralized, backcountry areas where the agricultural production and animal husbandry is taking place.”

He says such communities could have lessons for future civilizations about how to subsist in a changing climate. 

“There’s a traditional proverb that refers to this region as the Land of Rebels,” Belluzzo said. “There are lots of traditional stories that paint them as unruly, but it wasn’t a lawless place. They had their own local system of rules and governance. It was more self-directed, more community-based. That said, it was understood that when chiefs extracted too much or expected too much, the people would rise up and replace them.”

Belluzzo was recently awarded a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation to support his work. He says that to understand a culture that lived on the margins, record books don’t answer all of the questions. Instead, he has to examine archeological remnants, such as agricultural field systems and house and temple sites, to piece together their story. Luckily, plenty of structures remain – and are visible on the surface and in satellite imagery.

“Those V-shaped walls seemed pretty anomalous to me when I first encountered them,” Belluzzo said, so he hiked out to the site. “I find this big sinkhole with these walls and then, in the bottom, there are just lots and lots of goat bones.”

Literal digging led to some figurative digging and eventually Belluzzo discovered records that the site was used for hunting goats and was modelled off of the “buffalo pounds” of the Plains Indians in North America.

“The buffalo pound was where you would have this kind of V-shape that would end in a circle,” Belluzzo said. “Hunters would drive the buffalo in and, as they ran around the circle, the hunters would harvest them.” 

He learned from historical records that the idea was likely brought to Manukā by an American rancher by the 1860s. The rancher introduced the concept to the people he employed on the island, who went out and constructed their own version from collapsed lava sinkholes and dry stacked rock walls.

“Here is evidence of re-adaption of a technique for a very different, but a very local context,” Belluzzo said. “And we have the names of the seven or eight individuals that actually built this, whose families still live nearby. It's just one site, but it tells you a lot about the ingenuity of a people whose families have been in this area for generations.”

Locally, the area has the reputation of being home to impoverished farmers, rebels and fighters, he explained. Ethnohistoric accounts frequently attest to the region resisting authority, rebelling against and killing oppressive chiefs. Early European explorers portrayed it as a devastated, uninhabitable lavascape, incapable of agricultural production. 

“Many of these portrayals didn't tell the full story,” Belluzzo said. “Here is a group of people who successfully adapted to their landscape and, in doing so, built a novel form of community."

Belluzzo uses satellite imagery and GPS data to identify and map archaeological features like trails, quarries, agricultural sites, homes and ritual sites. He pairs his geospatial analysis with data from field surveys and excavations to get a fuller picture of what’s on the ground. 

“This is large region, which means I can't spend as much time on any one site,” Belluzzo said.  “GIS allows me to collect data on many different sites and input variables like rainfall and soil fertility.” 

He also conducts laboratory work, including radiocarbon dating, macrobotanical analysis, and soil chemistry analysis to determine soil fertility, productivity and temporal variability. As a multi-disciplinary effort, Belluzzo will collaborate with soil scientists, paleobotanists, authorities in traditional Hawaiian knowledge systems and state land managers. 

“The modelling of soil conditions, contextualized with other variables, such as elevation, rainfall, and distance from water, will be used to infer agricultural potential,” Belluzzo explained. “These other environmental indicators help me get a better understanding of why people would settle on a particular area. It helps me understand their motivations.”

W&M anthropologist Jennifer Kahn serves as Belluzzo’s dissertation advisor and was co-PI on the NSF grant. She stresses the importance of taking this kind of cross-disciplinary research approach. 

“In marginal places like Manukā, we can tell the stories of how Hawaiians lived and subsisted in difficult landscapes, adapting their specific traditional ecological knowledge,” she said. “Such analyses provide a more holistic study of Hawaiians in the past by zeroing in on the lives of everyday fishers and farmers.”

One aspect of their lives is particularly relevant today: survival in a changing climate. 

“I think one of the reasons this area is interesting is because the climate was and is uncertain, so people really had to focus on diversifying their resources,” Belluzzo said. “As the climate becomes increasingly uncertain everywhere, we need to think about what sort of community decisions and systems we should be employing to ensure we persist in these areas.”