Hawaiian Economics: Barter for Fish & Poi


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palmtreeBartering is the exchange of goods and services without the use of money. We are going to learn how Hawaiians bartered for food and other goods long ago before there were stores and money to shop with. Through barter, Hawaiians were able to trade away items they did not need for items they did need. However, bartering is not always so easy. The main disadvantage of barter is that it requires a double coincidence of wants. Both people have to have what the other one wants and be willing to swap with each other. Let's see how the Hawaiians bartered in old Hawaii.

Before we start, let's review the following Hawaiian words:

  • taro - (ta-row) a plant grown for its starchy root.
  • poi - (poy, rhymes with boy) paste food made from steamed, pounded taro.
  • Ahupua'a - (ah-who-pu-ah-ah) Hawaiian land district, pie-shaped, or wedge-shaped piece of land that which includes mountains, valleys, and shore.

It is important to understand the Ahupua'a system of land division before going on with this lesson. This system was used by chiefs in ancient Hawaii as a way to allow all Hawaiian communities to have access to mountain, valley, and shore resources. To review this information, please refer to the lesson titled 'Hawaiian Economics: From the Mountain to the Sea.'

Look at a Map of the Hawaiian Islands .

Use the following link to see how the Hawaiian island of O'ahu was divided into Ahupa's on the Island of O'ahu


In this lesson you will learn how specialization and division of labor increased productivity and made barter possible in the traditional Hawaiian economy.


Hawaiians Love 'Fish and Poi!'
Many Hawaiians loved to eat fish and poi. Salted dried fish or fresh fish served with poi (made from mashed taro) were a delicious part of the Hawaiian diet. In the Ahupua'a system, all Hawaiians were able to go to the mountains to cut wood to make a fishing canoe, grow taro in the valleys, and go to the beach to catch fish, dry fish, and gather salt. The Ahupua'a system let all Hawaiians have the chance to get 'Fish and Poi'.

Let's Get Fish & Poi!
In order to get fish and poi, Hawaiian families would have to travel to the mountains to cut a tree, carry it home, and build a fishing canoe. They needed to plant and care for a taro garden. This took a lot of time and work. They needed to harvest the taro and pound it into poi. At the same time, Hawaiians needed to learn about the best fishing spots, carve fishhooks, make and use a fishing net, gather shellfish, make salt, and catch and prepare the fish. Caring for the garden and fishing would require a family to travel back and forth from valley to shore, which took a lot of time and energy. If they took too much time fishing, the taro plants would die. If they spent too much time caring for the taro, they had no time to fish and gather salt. This made it difficult for Hawaiians to prepare one of their favorite meals - 'Fish & Poi.'

leiThere's a Problem... It's Hard to be a Good Farmer and a Good Fisherman. Help!
Hawaiians began to specialize in certain areas of farming, fishing, and crafts such as woodcarving, canoe building, and lei making. Instead of trying to do many different things and not being able to give each job enough time and study, some Hawaiians focused on doing one job really well. By focusing on one area, they learned how to become very good at their jobs and produce more items, and better quality products.

Got Poi... But Where's the Fish?
Some Hawaiians specialized in farming which means they focused on becoming really good farmers and spent less time on other tasks. They learned about the soil, weeding, planting, watering, harvesting, and pounding taro into poi. By specializing in farming, they became better farmers. They were able to grow really good taro for poi. They were also able to increase their productivity, growing more taro to make more poi. But this also meant they didn't have much time to walk to the shore to catch fish, dry fish, or gather salt and shellfish. So they had Poi...but no Fish.

Got Fish... But Where's the Poi?
Some Hawaiians specialized in fishing. They used their time to learn about the ocean and practice fishing skills. They needed to learn where the best fishing spots were, how to throw a fishing net, where to collect shellfish, how to navigate the ocean, how to paddle canoes for deep ocean fishing, and how to dry and prepare fish. Specializing allowed them to become good fishermen and catch wonderful seafood for their families. But this also meant they had no time to tend a garden up in the valley or to hike into the mountains. So they had Fish... but no Poi!

crabThere's Another Problem... Still No 'Fish & Poi!'
Specializing helped Hawaiians improve the quality of the food they ate. Some Hawaiians became great fisherman, finding the best places to dive, collect shellfish, and catch fish. They ended up with lots of delicious seafood. Others who were farmers grew delicious taro and sweet potatoes. Still others who were craftsmen built great canoes, made homes, and carved fishhooks. But still no 'Fish & Poi!'

Let's Trade for Fish & Poi!
Specializing made it easier for Hawaiian families to have good quality food. Fishermen caught lots of fish, sometimes more than their families needed. Farmers grew lots of taro for poi, sometimes more than their families needed. With no stores, no money, and no refrigeration, Hawaiians began to barter with each other as a way to get what they needed and to get rid of extra items they did not need and could not save for later. Finally, a way to get 'Fish & Poi!' Barter for it!

Click here to play 'Let's Trade for Fish & Poi!'


In this lesson, you learned how specialization increased the quality and the amount of food produced. Another way of saying this is, specialization increased the productivity. Bartering was a way for Hawaiians to swap extra items they had for items they needed but were not able to find or grow. But remember, bartering can only happen if each person has what the other person wants, and they both agree to trade.

Can you see any potential problems with a system like this?

What if you need something and no one wants to barter with you because they do not need what you have?

What if someone really wants what you have, but you do not want what they have to trade?

Think about the bartering that took place in old Hawaii. The barter system has cost and benefits to the Hawaiian people. The costs are the negative aspects or the flaws in the system. The benefits are the positive aspects. Think about the costs and benefits of a barter system versus the money/market system we use today as you answer the questions below.

Think About It!

  1. How did the environment of Hawaii make it a challenge for Hawaiians to gather the fish & poi that they loved?
  2. Was it easy to farm, fish, and gather all the items a Hawaiian family needed?
  3. What did the Hawaiians do to improve the quality of the food they grew, gathered, and caught?
  4. How do you think they can solve this last problem of getting 'Fish & Poi?'
  5. What are the benefits of trading for food?
  6. What are the costs of trading for food?
  7. What was the interdependence found in the Ahupua'a?
  8. How do people in our community get their food?
  9. Why don't we use the barter system to get our food?

Mahalo (thank you) for learning about job specialization and barter in the Hawaiian Ahupua'a.


Be prepared to discuss how the unique environment in the Hawaiian Ahupua'a led Hawaiians to specialize and trade for goods and services. You should also be able to identify the regions of the Ahupua'a, some of the resources found there, the difficulties Hawaiians faced gathering and growing what they needed, and how specialization and trade helped them to solve these problems.