Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii - Lava-Carved Images of Ancient Hawaiian Life



Among the many archeological attractions at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are the ancient images near the southern flank of Kilauea volcano known as the Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs. These include thousands of drawings etched into the hardened lava, some showing human representations known as anthropomorphs.

In the Hawaiian language, Pu'u Loa means "long hill.'' It refers to a place considered sacred to the people of Kalapana. At this site, carbon dating has indicated that the locality was inhabited in the early 15th century, and the native Hawaiians left plenty of evidence of how they lived more than five centuries ago.

Pecked into the volcanic rock are more than 23,000 petroglyph images. Of the total, some 84 percent are cupules or holes. Other images include circles and other geometric motifs, cryptic designs, canoe sails, and even feathered caps, in addition to the aforementioned anthropomorphs representing families, traditions and beliefs.

Also found in the area are remnants of house platforms and caves used as dwellings. Enclosures have been discovered, which may have been used to hold livestock. There are excavated pits and rock mulch mounds, too, that might suggest animal husbandry and farming took place here.

The Pu'u Loa Petroglyph Field was first observed by Reverend William Ellis, a missionary to the Hawaiian and Society Islands. He recorded seeing the petroglyphs at Pu'u Loa in 1823, describing them as "straight lines, semicircles, or concentric rings, with some rude imitations of the human figure, cut or carved in the compact rocks of lava.''

Ellis believed the etchings were left by visitors to the area. A number of concentric circles with a dot or mark in the center indicated the party who had circumambulated the island. In 1914, however, anthropologist Martha Beckwith visited Pu'u Loa and interpreted these markings as family symbols. She said that they show how many members there were in a family and what their ranks were in the tribe. Today, experts still debate the meaning.

In the past, it was a common practice to take rubbings of the petroglyphs to create a copy or duplicate. It was found, however, that any abrasion or scuffing of the images damages them and speeds the erosion process, so rubbings are no longer allowed. Instead, a boardwalk has been constructed above the ground surface to elevate the pathway and allow visitors to walk by and view a section of the extensive area and the variety of petroglyphs at the site from a safe distance.

Pu'u Loa is accessible from the parking area pullout where an emergency call box is located on Chain of Craters Road at mile marker 16.5. It is a 0.7-mile walk from the pullout to the boardwalk, traversing a gently undulating pahoehoe lava bedrock trail.

Visitors to the park will want to stop by the Kilauea Visitor Center before traveling on to the petroglyph field. The Center is located at Crater Rim Drive, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii 96785. The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the Visitor Center's operating hours are from 7:45am to 5pm daily. Rangers at the Center can provide the latest information on hiking, group activities, road conditions, and safety precautions.

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