Stone Stories: The Mystery and History of Hawaiian Petroglyphs

National park sites in Hawaiʻi protect more than famous lava flows, beaches, waterfalls and lush forests. In Hawaiʻi, national parks also protect and preserve Native Hawaiian cultural sites rich with meaning, history, and even mystery. One of the most intriguing mysteries swirls around the meanings of those most Hawaiian of symbol systems: petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs are shapes made by pecking into stone using very hard rock tools to break through the shiny volcanic crust of a lava field. In pre-contact Hawaiʻi, where there was no writing, no paper and ink, petroglyphs may have been meaning-laden public messages, possibly a way to commemorate a place, event, or person. The word for petroglyphs in Hawaiian: kiʻi pokahu.

Between AD 1200-1450, Kīlauea Volcano erupted a smooth pāhoehoe lava flow on her southwestern flank into an area now protected within the boundaries of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. A long, low mound, part of this flow, cooled and became a shiny silvery-black canvas for the recordkeeping of the community. Known as “Puʻu Loa,” roughly translated as “Long hill” or “Hill of long life,” this expanse of glassy smooth lava was transformed over hundreds of years into a record of much that is only partly or dimly understood. At Puʻu Loa, the vast petroglyph field of over 23,000 images includes little cups (cupules), circles and dots, human figures, canoe sails, and more. It is believed by some researchers that the petroglyphs may record important social events, Hawaiian legends, births, deaths, battles; that they kept records, proclaimed domain, told stories, and showed dedication to personal family gods; although one of the primary uses of the area, as demonstrated by the number of cupules, may have been to place a newborn’s umbilical cord to connect the child to the power of the land. As for specific meanings, much is lost to the past. When the Western concept of writing was introduced to Hawaiʻi in the 1800s, the shift to this new mode of communication was rapid. Many Hawaiians passed away without transmitting their insight into these historical images, and many families may still hold the translation of petroglyphs as a tightly guarded and highly personal matter.

On the other side of Hawaiʻi Island, at Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park on the Kona Coast, petroglyph sites are clumped and scattered throughout the park’s 1,161 acres. Unlike Puʻu Loa, where people seemed to gather to make petroglyphs in a communal site, this park’s collection of images is found in patches and singly, varying in location, meaning, and time. The entire park site is a cultural landscape, encompassing areas that once were settlements and working fishponds. Here and there, small groupings of images tell a story or part of a story. The park has also built a boardwalk about a ten minute walk down the trail from the visitor center in order to keep human feet above the fragile images in this particular location. Visitors in the early morning, or late evening, can use the low angle of the light to look for sails, men, women, muskets, even an unusual, so far undefined, crouching form.

According to park staff, some of the shapes and forms here may date back to the 1300s, and some of them are definite documentation of the social impact of Western contact, such as the muskets, and what seem to be cannons. Petroglyphs in a grouping, such as a line of human figures, or a gathering of circles and dots, are important in relationship to each other—are they a family? An army? That relationship extended to the setting and the landscape. The artists placed these images where their messages would be amplified by what surrounded them. By the 1800s, when American whalers were a common sight and the European powers were sending representatives to the Hawaiian royal government, canoe sails were replaced by Western ship images, and not long after that the whole art and practice of petroglyphs washed away on a sea of paper and ink.
What are some best practices for viewing petroglyphs in the national parks? Kaloko-Honokōhau NHP Ranger Jon Jokiel says: “These are irreplaceable resources that are significant archeological sites. Do not step on them, or do any rubbings on them; go with respect. Basically, leave no trace.” To take advantage of the low angle of light to view petroglyphs, view them in early morning or late afternoon.

Discover more about Puʻu Loa here:

The petroglyph brochure from Kaloko-Honokōhau is here:

A petroglyph book is here:

Petroglyph tokens are here:



Hawaii Pacific Parks Association Location Map

Hawaiʻi Pacific Parks Association. P.O. Box 74 Hawaii National Park, 96718 HI