Hawaiian Name: Ki‘i Pōhaku

[Illustration: Petroglyphs]


There are circles by the hundreds, and circles within circles.  There are figures of humans, animals, sailing canoes, fishhooks, and countless cryptic markings carved into island rocks.  These are the petroglyphs of the Hawaiians. 

A petroglyph is a stone carving (petro means “stone” and glyph means “carving”).  The ancient Hawaiians referred to petroglyphs as ki‘i pōhaku (ki‘i means “image,” and pōhaku means “stone”).  Today petroglyphs are virtually the only prehistoric art of the Hawaiian Islands not in museums, private collections, or hidden away in caves. 


Petroglyph Sites

Ancient societies all over the world have left carvings on rocks.  Worldwide, the oldest known petroglyphs are in European caves and are thought to be more than 10,000 years old.  Petroglyph sites in the Hawaiian Islands continue to provide clues to the Islands’ ancient past.

There are more than 100 places in the Hawaiian Islands where petroglyphs may be found, and these ancient carvings continue to provide clues to the ancient past of the Hawaiian Islands. 

One of the most extensive Hawaiian petroglyph sites is on the pāhoehoe lava in South Kohala on the island of Hawai‘i at the Puakō petroglyph preserve, where more than 3,000 petroglyphs may be seen.  At the Pu‘uloa site in Puna, there are an estimated 15,000 petroglyphs. 

Many sites throughout the Hawaiian Islands have petroglyphs numbering in the hundreds, and many more sites with less than 20 petroglyphs.

Billowy pāhoehoe lava flows appear to be the most common surface upon which petroglyphs were created.  The second most common surface where petroglyphs are found is on boulders, including rounded boulders, as well as on the flat faces formed where boulders have split.  These boulders are usually denser and harder than pāhoehoe lava, and the petroglyphs are usually not as deep (about 1/8 inch (3 mm)). 

Petroglyphs are also found on vertical cliff faces such as some cliff walls in Nu‘uanu Valley, O‘ahu, and at some Maui sites.  Petroglyphs are also found along the shoreline on limestone beach shelves. 

One coastal site where petroglyphs are found is at Keoneloa Beach on Kaua‘i, where a sharp-pointed instrument was used to create smooth, fine-lined petroglyphs.  These petroglyphs are usually covered with sand, and only occasionally revealed.

Petroglyphs may also be found in lava tubes, such as those in Ka‘ū on the island of Hawai‘i.  The Hawaiian Islands have hundreds of known lava tubes and many show evidence of use in ancient Hawai‘i (e.g., as burial sites, shelters, and places of refuge), though very few are known to have petroglyphs.


The Creation and Meanings of Petroglyphs

One method used to make petroglyphs utilized a hammer stone along with a sharp stone to peck dots into the lava.  Then the dots were connected.  Another method involved smashing a stone against the picture area.  Sometimes a sharp-edged rock was used to scratch the picture into the basalt.

Petroglyphs in the Hawaiian Islands are divided into three categories: descriptive, symbolic, and cryptic.  Descriptive petroglyphs may be recognizable subjects, including anthropomorphic images or man-made objects, such as canoes, paddles, sails, and fishhooks, as well as the circles and dots associated with the piko (umbilical cord) ceremony (see below).

Symbolic petroglyphs are less recognizable, often consisting of forms carved in an unnatural manner, yet obviously purposefully created, and thus meaningful to the carver.  Cryptic petroglyphs are mysterious images that are very different than the descriptive and symbolic petroglyphs. 

Cryptic petroglyphs are by definition of uncertain meaning and many theories and interpretations have been offered over the years to explain these petroglyphs, yet much uncertainty remains.  Some have suggested that certain cryptic or symbolic petroglyphs may be created in such a way as to have secret or double meanings, similar to the kaona (hidden meanings) often used in Hawaiian chants.

Petroglyphs may represent a variety of things, including animals, tools, voyaging canoes, and weapons.  The most common types of petroglyphs are human figures (including well distinguished male and female figures) as well as dots and circles.  Also fairly commonly seen at petroglyph sites are canoes with sails, and sometimes just the sails.

Women were often represented by an open triangle, and men by a closed triangle.  Some researchers think that petroglyphs are the first efforts of an ancient people to construct a written language. 

[Illustration: Examples of open and closed triangle petroglyphs]


Petroglyphs also may be related to certain ceremonies and events, and may have been used to infuse mana (divine power) into someone or something.  For example, soon after giving birth, parents would place their baby’s navel cord in a simple circle petroglyph for the overnight ritual of the piko (umbilical cord) ceremony.  This was done to impart to the child the mana of the sacred site and ensure a long life.

Early expeditions to the Hawaiian Islands produced reports of native men and women with tattoo markings, and these may have been related to the symbols in the petroglyphs.  Some petroglyphs might represent the specific mark of an individual, like a signature. 

Some petroglyphs on the island of Hawai‘i are thought to have been inscribed around A.D. 500, and are very similar to petroglyphs found in the Marquesas Islands, the place that is considered the origin of the first Hawaiians.

Among the thousands of petroglyphs found on the vast, barren lava fields of the island of Hawai‘i, the earlier petroglyphs were of the linear stick-figure type, and then a more triangular form evolved.  An intermediate columnar form is also found at a few locations. 


Preservation of Petroglyph Sites

When visiting a petroglyph site, it is important to avoid contact with the petroglyphs.  Petroglyphs are valuable links to Hawaiian culture, and rubbings, castings and other attempts to duplicate the petroglyphs contribute to the degradation of the ancient rock engravings, and thwart attempts to preserve them for future generations.

[Photograph: Petroglyphs]