When Captain Cook first visited the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaiian was a spoken language but not a written language. Historical accounts were passed down orally, through chants and songs.
This doesn’t suggest however, that the Hawaiians did not communicate through “written” symbols – Hawaiians also communicated through na ki‘i pōhaku, petroglyphs.
Petroglyph is a word that comes from the Greek words “petros,” for rock, and “gypheian,” to carve. Thus, petroglyphs are rock carvings.
Petroglyphs occur throughout the world. Certain shapes and forms appear to be universal. A petroglyph of a man or dog in Sweden looks just like a petroglyph of a man or dog in Hawai‘i.
It is probable that the first settlers to Hawai‘i started carving in the rocks after they arrived here. With no other writing, the ancient Hawaiians used petroglyphs as forms of communication, with the gods, spirits and others who viewed them.
Hawaiian petroglyphs are more often found near or at junctions of trails, or areas when ‘mana’ (cosmic power or force) was found.
It was this mana that was supposed to be absorbed by the petroglyphs to insure the efficacy of the spiritual rite or act of magic that affirmed the petroglyph’s intent.
Petroglyphs are not the result of trifling doodle or pastime. Many petroglyphs were made in connection with religious/magical rites or acts.
Despite appearances, the making of a petroglyph was a purposeful and deliberate act with the given expectation of result and/or consequence.
Hawaiian petroglyphs evolved into different forms and styles over time.
Many times in clusters of petroglyphs, in the center of a cluster tend to be of the earliest type, the “stick man” – this is the oldest universal form around the world.
Another form appears to have a wider body format, sometimes referred to as the ‘columnar’ form. A more recent form has the triangular body.
Animals were also drawn; many animals were their guardian spirits (aumakua.) Animal figures also represented spirits that inhabited the areas where the petroglyphs were made.
Canoes, paddles, fishhooks, fans and feather capes were also drawn. These sometimes represent the mode of travel to reach the petroglyphs, i.e. canoe, on foot, etc.
The majority of petroglyphs are on the ground with carving into the smooth pāhoehoe lava. Other surfaces include boulders, cliff faces and smooth-walled interiors of lava tubes and caves.
Hard surface petroglyph carving was done with a stone, repeatedly smashing the stone against the surface. Designs on smoother walls in caves can be scraped with a pointed rock.
The petroglyph fields I am most familiar with are the clusters at Puakō, South Kohala. In fact, years ago – decades before I was involved with DLNR – when I was an appraiser, I was given an assignment to value the state land where the petroglyphs are located.
The State was leasing the land and was going to require the tenant to farm the property. In doing so, it meant the lessee would have to grade and plant the entire site. I called attention to the fact that there are numerous petroglyphs in this area and grading (and farming) should be voided.
I recommended that they amend the lease requirements to protect the petroglyphs. Fortunately they did; but it also meant my appraisal assignment was cancelled (which was fine with me.) (Lots from Ski Kwiatkowski and his book “Na Ki‘i Pohaku”.)