Historic Hawaii

Hawaii is known for beach vacations, surfing, leis, and mai-tais. There is a lot of interesting history here, too, and we had a chance to explore some of it during our visit.

We started just down the hill from our house, at the birthplace of King Kamehameha (Kamehameha l or the Great). It’s the banner photo for this post. We didn’t realize how close it was at first, because the access road to visit the site is a lumpy 4WD track that parallels the runway of the tiny Opolu Airport and then runs along the shore until it ends near the site. What remains of Kamehameha’s birthplace are low walls of lava that outline a large compound with a few generous sized interior rooms that was the family home, originally finished with thatched roofs. There would have been easy access for fishing from the shore or boats, even chances to go surfing.

Very near by is the Mo’okini heiau (hey-ow), a ceremonial center that was the focus of large gatherings and offerings. There are many heiau around Hawaii, ranging in size from a single large rock on a stone platform, to huge enclosures. Mo’okini is distinctive as one of the oldest and largest heiau on Hawaii. It was also a luakini heiau, a place used for animal and human sacrifice. An associated tale recounts that the heiau was built of stone passed hand to hand across eleven miles from the source to the Mo’okini site. The structure is an enormous rectangle made of stacked dry stone that is roughly 250 ft x 120 ft in size. The walls are ten feet thick at the base.

Exterior of Mo’okini heiau
Entering the Mo’okini heaiu

It is still possible to walk into the Mo’okini enclosure and get a sense of how imposing it would have been to participate in a ceremony there. Some visitors leave offerings of flowers, fruit, braided leaves, rocks, crystals, and shells.

The story goes that due to intergroup conflicts, Kamehameha was moved from his childhood home to a more remote location in the Waipio Valley and grew up there, safe from family enemies. Captain Cook arrived just as the future King Kamehameha I was building his chiefdom, and provided examples of European warfare. Kamehameha hired European advisers, and began to use cannons, guns, and even had a 40 ton ship of his own built in Honolulu in 1796. Battles were fought among chiefs on Hawaii and after defeating his rivals to become King, Kamehameha I expanded his ambitions to the other islands, succeeding in uniting all of the Hawaiian Islands by 1804. This historic first made Hawaii a political power, as it was an important way station for whaling ships during the first half of the 19th century, and a port for trading ships heading from Asia to the west coast of North and South America.

Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Kamehameha didn’t turn his back on tradition, using Mo’okini and also constructing another very large heiau at Pu’ukohola that was the site of battles as well as offerings. Though we were able to enter the Mo’okini heiau, Pu’ukohola was closed to visitors. There is a tall rack just down the hill from the entrance that is intended to hold offerings. As at Mo’okini, there were flowers and braids of greenery resting on the offering stand. Below Pu’ukohola is Mailekini heiau, a somewhat older structure that was turned into a fort by Kamehameha, lined with cannons that he purchased from traders when he realized that European armament was the way to stay dominant over the islands.

Pu’ukohola heiau on the hilltop, viewed from Mailekini heiau, near the shore

It may look like all of Hawaii is covered in heiau, but there were many villages along the shore. Land was allotted in narrow strips (ahupua’a) from the coast far up onto the sides of the volcanoes to give each family group a bit of each kind of land and the resources of each area, like fishing territory along the coast, farmland, forest for wood and thatch, areas with lava rock for construction, or fine grained stone and obsidian for tools. We visited the Lapakahi State Historic Park to see a village site. This area was occupied until about 1920 when the water table dropped so low they ran out of water.

A village of stone houses, now lacking their thatch roofs, with one fully reconstructed house in the distance. Lapakahi State Historic Park

In addition to the fortress-like heiau, and coastal villages, Hawaii has a number of places where people went to create petroglyphs, pecking and scratching shapes onto relatively flat surfaces of lava. We visited the Puako petroglyphs, an extensive area of shapes that are both familiar (men, women) and also abstract.

Puako Petroglyphs

No one is sure why these images were created, and petroglyphs are found in a number of different places around the island of Hawaii and on the other islands. Whatever the purpose, they are very durable, and great food for thought on a walk. It can be hot out on the fields of lava, and there’s lots of advice to take water with you. It’s an interesting walk through the trees to the site, and the variety of shapes is intriguing. It’s impossible to tell how long ago each of these was made.

From long before the days of King Kamehameha right up to the present, Hawaii has a rich history, unique to these islands, that is worth thinking about. People lived in an area so far from where their ancestors started out that they created new stories to describe their origins. They constructed a way of life that served them well for a long time, and many of their descendants are still part of today’s Hawaii.


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

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