Mystery and Romance of Hawaii’s Enigmatic Petroglyphs

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Lost in the dreaming mists of time are the origins and meanings of Hawaiian petroglyphs, the carved rock art of the ancient Hawaiians. Are they religious symbols or hunting magic? Accounts of journeys and conquests? No one is certain, as no historical records exist and those kahuna who knew the meaning of that magic took those secrets to their grave.

Like most animists, Hawai’ians invested worship and respect in, and intuited spiritual powers to, a range of natural objects and phenomena: rain, volcanic eruptions, the sea, and individual rocks. Pohaku O Kane, “sacred rocks”, were among the most common objects of worship, whether they were natural to the landscape (pohakuia loa), rocks set on platforms (pohaku amakua), carved rocks (pohaku iki) or the petroglyphs themselves (ki’i pohaku).  

Most petroglyphs in Hawaii are found in “fields,” on broad expanses of smooth pahoehoe basalt which facilitated both carving the images as well as gatherings of celebrants, were they later used in sacred rituals. On fact, Pu’u Loa, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, is the largest petroglyph field in Polynesia. In addition, smaller scattered groups and lone carvings are known throughout the Hawaiian Islands. A black market exists in stolen petroglyphs and these lone petroglyphs are becoming increasingly hard to protect from thieves. Heartbreakingly, most are destroyed as ignorant thieves try to pry, hammer and chip them away from their native stone.

Although the age of the petroglyphs is difficult to determine, a stylistic evolution is evident and can be relatively dated where more recent petroglyphs are carved on top of older ones. Early styles include simple stick figures and crude geometrics, evolving into more humanoid figures with triangular chests. Carvings with elaborate headdresses and complex geometric designs came later and carvings of horses, cattle and European sailing vessels certainly post-date European contact. There are many petroglyphs which seem to defy even these simple classifications and are so stylistically unique that scholars argue whether they represent some variant art form that flourished briefly and died, or are a more modern carving by contemporary artists.

Puako Petroglyph Field
This field of over 1200 individual carvings makes you wonder why ancient Hawai’ians made their tortuous way across miles of lava desert, far from any source of water, to leave their enigmatic and cryptic petroglyphs on this pahoehoe lava flow. Carved between 1000 and 1800 c.e., this is the second largest field of ancient petroglyphs in Polynesia. Lying near the grounds of the Mauna Lani Resort, they are accessed today by a simple, twenty-five-minute walk. In addition to the carvings, there are numerous piko, small holes bored into the lava to accept an infant’s umbilical cord during religious birth ceremonies.

Puako has offered at least one clue in unraveling the enigma of Hawaiian petroglyphs. Based upon thousands of measurements and careful mapping, it is now believed that the human figure, with his right hand raised, may indicate the compass direction “north-west.”

Makaole’a Beach Petroglyph Field
A forgotten beach along Ali’i Drive in the heart of Kona, Makaole’a Beach has wonderful tidepools and numerous petroglyphs, which lie both above and below the surface of the ocean and are only visible at low tide. Look to the south and west toward the ocean, perhaps a hundred meters from the reconstructed Ke’eku Heiau. The petroglyphs were all carved above sea level; over the centuries the sheer weight of Hawai’i Island has caused slow subsidence, and the petroglyphs are now partially submerged. An example of an authentic, but relatively recent, carving is a large petroglyph clearly depicting a European-style sailing vessel. Other famous petroglyphs from this field include the depiction of the headless Maui Ali’i Kamalalawalu, as well as an anatomically “super-anatomically correct” carving of the Hawaii King Lonoikamakakahiki.

Pu’u Loa Petroglyph Field
Just off Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Chain of Craters Road, along the side of the centuries-old Ka’u-Puna trail, worn smooth by generations of travelers, in the area of the Hill of Long Life (Pu’u Loa) lies the largest petroglyph field in Polynesia It is estimated that the Pu;u Loa field contains in excess of 15,000 carvings. A one mile segment of this ancient trail, from the parking lot along the Chain of Craters Road to the petroglyphs, has been marked with cairns (or “ahu”) by the Park staff to lead visitors to the petroglyphs. As you hike along this trail, notice the smoothness of the lava, the sheen on the trail worn by generations of travelers’ feet.

There are many theories concerning the origin and meanings of these carvings but one thing is certain. People stopped here for hundreds of years and left their mark on the stone. Among the designs are simple holes, spirals, concentric circles, human forms and others which are unrecognizable geometric shapes. The hills and swales of pahoehoe surrounding the boardwalk contain thousands more petroglyphs, but due to their fragility, you are advised to remain on the boardwalk to keep from damaging them. This self-guided tour takes about one hour.

South Point Petroglyphs
Unlike the three previous examples, there is no large petroglyph field at South Point—carvings are spread on rocks, in tidepools and lava tubes up and down the coastline. There are several that are associated with the small, but well-preserved, Kalalae Heiau near the actual geographic South Point.  

There also are several outstanding examples of Pohaku O Kane other than petroglyphs evident here. On the main platform outside the heiau is a pohaku amakua referred to as “Kumaiea,” which means “female.” On the smaller stone terrace just north is another standing stone, associated with the god Kanaloa, and referred to as “Kanemakua” (male). The stone inside the walls is a called “Ku’ula” after the Hawaiian god of fishing.  Examples of pohakuia loa include Pohakuokeau (“stone of the currents” or “stone of the years”), which stands just offshore. The name Pohakuokeau reflects the Hawaiian belief that the stones would turn over when there was a political change in government.
Petroglyphs in the area are numerous but scattered, so it’s up to the initiative and energy of the visitor to find them. True curiosities, the kite petroglyphs, are in a large tidepool easily located by walking east and south along the shore from Kalalae Heiau. These carvings are so stylistically unique that scholars are unsure of their origins. Do they represent some variant, and apparently rare, art form, or are they modern carvings by a recent artist? Even other associated archeological features nearby feed this ambiguity. In the immediate area there are several pohakuia loa (rocks naturally standing in the area used for worship) and pohaku iki (carved rocks that generally have been stood-up) that are thought to be authentic. However, the large stone “altar” is very unusual stylistically from other Hawaiian features and may be nothing more than a modern “bench” made by fishermen. In a large lava tube nearby, is a turtle petroglyph similar in style to the kites. Modern or ancient?

Petroglyphs are enigmatic, ancient, and undeniably beautiful and abundantly scattered across the Hawaiian landscape. It requires only curiosity, time, and energy to seek them out. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the one to tease some morsel of meaning from these cryptic and ancient messages to the gods.


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