KOHALA, Hawaii - Few remnants of Hawaii's past are as mysterious and intriguing as the ancient images carved in stone in special places around the state, especially on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island.
They're called petroglyphs, from the Greek words for stone (petros) and carving (glyphe), and they have been puzzled over by explorers and scientists for 200 years. They vary from simple stick figures of people and animals to cryptic abstractions and complex geometric figures said to impart Hawaiian mana, or magical powers.
Since they were generally carved on vast fields of lava rock or on giant boulders, petroglyphs simply cannot be picked up and preserved in museums. They remain out in the open, where anyone can ponder their secrets.
In fact, "new" petroglyphs are discovered from time to time, and everybody is welcome to take a crack at solving the mystery.
Keeping the past alive
For more than a thousand years, Hawaiians lived alone, with no contact with the rest of the world. Most came to believe there was no other world beyond theirs. With no written words to guide them, events were kept alive through poems and chants.
According to to some, petroglyphs were designed to help the people remember their past. Ironically, any methods of deciphering the petroglyphs have been forgotten. Those who have interviewed Hawaiians on the subject have received only untutored opinions or vague recollections of what older relatives had told them.
"In my opinion, petroglyph-making was already a dying art by the time Captain Cook arrived here in 1778," said Ski Kwiatkowski.
A retired police officer who lives on the Kohala Coast, Kwiatkowski, who has both Polish and Hawaiian blood, is also a gifted, self-taught anthropologist. He's been studying petroglyphs all his life and published a book on the subject, "Na Ki'i Pohaku" (Images of Stone).
The Puako petroglyphs
One of Hawaii's most famous petroglyph sites, a football field-size patch of about 3,000 pictures on the Big Island, was carved on a surface of old lava between the village of Puako and the Ritz-Carlton Mauna Lani. It's a short hike from either place.
"What you're standing on is a petroglyph field which probably dates back 1,200 years," said Kwiatkowski. He then cautioned us to walk on the cracks between the pillows of lava on which the icons were carved.
Kwiatkowski pointed out both realistic and abstract representations. There are family groups and family gods, represented by animals such as dogs or turtles. There are columns of marching men, perhaps indicating an ancient army or an important battle. There are also footprints and fantasized pictures of supernatural creatures.
"The most interesting aspect of this particular field is that the majority of the images here are linear - that is, stick figures," he said, explaining that these are probably among the earliest petroglyphs. "But every now and then, you see some with triangular trunks or some even drawn with muscles. They're more recent."
Kwiatkowski said different petroglyph fields often specialized in different things. Another site, at the ancient village of Kaupulehu (now on the grounds of the Kona Village Resort), consists mostly of representations of canoe sails.
"The principal occupation of the people who lived there was sail making," Kwiatkowski said. "But the petroglyphs were not simply to record that they made sails - everybody knew that - but to impart mana, or magic, to the process," he said.
"Here at Puako, it's my belief that most of these petroglyphs were made to record family genealogy. That's why you see so many large figures and small figures - mothers and fathers and their children."
Solving a riddle
Over the years, Kwiatkowski has made other discoveries, including the apparent meaning of a petroglyph in a major site at Anaehoomalu, a field within easy walking distance of the Royal Waikoloan and the Hilton Waikoloa Village hotels.
Petroglyphs continued to be made for a short time after the missionaries began to teach Hawaiians to read and write. At Anaehoomalu, along the ancient path known as the King's Trail, was written the word "Kamauoha," and next to it was an earlier petroglyph of a man in an unusual, hulking pose. Kwiatkowski thought he know a family by that name, and he searched them out.
"I ended up talking to the great-great-granddaughter of the man in the petroglyph. His name, indeed, was Kamauoha, and he was a wrestling partner of Kamehameha. (Kamehameha the Great, the first king of all the Hawaiian islands, died in 1819.) And you know, Kamauoha's sons and grandsons were wrestlers, too, all the way up to the 20th century.
"And that explains the unusual picture. . . . Look!"
Kwiatkowski hopped up on the rock above the petroglyph and was
duplicating it in real life, hunching forward and spreading his arms and legs apart in the same manner as the crude drawing.
Suddenly he had become a 200-year-old Hawaiian wrestler at the ready, demonstrating the technique inscribed in stone centuries ago.
Other petroglyph sites
Petroglyphs exist in many parts of Hawaii, but not all of them are easy to find. In addition the Big Island areas mentioned, here are a few well-known locations on other islands:
-- Nuuanu Valley, Oahu: On a cliff on the west side of Nuuanu Stream next to Nuuanu Memorial Park.
-- Olowalu, Maui: On the face of a cliff below Kilea Hill on the east side of Olowalu gulch, reached by a dirt road about a mile inland from a restaurant named Chez Paul.
-- Palaau State Park, Molokai: On boulders just east of the famous phallic stone there.
-- Luahiwa, Lanai: On about 20 boulders on the side of a hill about a mile south of Lanai City.
-- Lydgate State Park, Kauai: Just south of the Waialua River mouth on rocks sometimes covered by sands and tide. Robert Bone is a travel writer and guidebook author based in Honolulu.