Ancient Messages

The ancient lava flows of South Kohala hold messages from the past. The old Hawaiians often carved petroglyphs into the smooth pāhoehoe along the shoreline. Laboriously pecked into the dark rock are images of men, turtles, canoes and more. Memories from a lost time, messages left by those who lived here so long ago.

Many of the images seem to be similar to modern grafitti, an attempt to make a mark that will be seen by others, maybe to record some memorable deed. Or perhaps simply to leave a mark that will outlive the artist, the hope of immortality carved in stone.

Hawaiian Petroglyphs
Petroglyphs along the beach at ‘Anaeho’omalu Bay
If that was the goal, it worked.

Today, a century or two later, modern visitors can look down and wonder about those who carved the pictures. Did the man with an oar overhead complete some particular feat? Did he win the race against a rival? Complete a first voyage to an island over the horizon and return to boast of the journey?

There are several places where interpretive trails lead visitors to collections of petroglyphs. Places where large numbers of images are carved on the flat pāhoehoe plates. But those places are just a small sample of what exists. This coastline was heavily settled before Europeans arrived, with villages and houses found in every suitable cove and above every little beach. Signs of these habitations are everywhere for one who looks. Low stone walls, stone platforms, piles of shells marking old trash middens, and petroglyphs wherever the stone was suitable for carving.

When walking the coast a sharp eye will often reward the explorer with surprises. Far from the resorts, walking along undeveloped coastline, a few ancient stone walls on a smooth pāhoehoe clearing catch my attention. Petroglyphs are everywhere, beautiful figures in the old style, slightly more modern Hawaiian names carved in formal Arabic letters, perhaps by students of the first missionaries? A Konane game board is carved in a large, level slab. Some more recent visitor has conveniently supplied the board with a set of markers, bits of white coral and rock, ready for a game.

Ship Petroglyph
A ship petroglyph at ‘Anaeho’omalu Bay
A real surprise, four separate images of a western sailing ship. Pecked into the rock accurately enough to identify the vessel as a small brig with a line of cannon ports down the side. A couple images display a single mast, a couple show two masts with the distinctive rigging of a brig. The images remind me of a particularly famous vessel from Hawaiian history, the Fair American, a brig used by Kemehameha the Great in his campaign to unite the islands. A ship that almost certainly would have spent time anchored along this very coast, a stronghold and vital center of Kamehameha’s power base. No way to know if these images are indeed the Fair American, but the images are suggestive.

I wander among the images and try to interpret the messages left by the artists. It took real work to peck an image deeply into the hard rock, there must have been a reason to expend that much effort. Each message may not be clear, open to interpretation, but the intent is clear. People were here, living everyday lives, with the small triumphs and tragedies that mark all human lives. The artists are forgotten, no records of their lives or their names. But here, on these lonely rocks are hints of those who lived here before us, left for us to see.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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