COURTESY KONA VILLAGE RESORT
Among the hundreds of petroglyphs, this sail became inspiration for the Kona Village Resort logo and leads experts to suggest the area may have been the site of a Hawaiian navigational school.
Romancing the Stone
Petroglyphs at Kona Village offer a glimpse of ancient inhabitants
The simple pictures etched in lava call to Lani Opunui, cultural historian at Kona Village Resort on the Big Island.
Kona Village Petroglyph Tour
Place: Kona Village, Queen Kaahumanu Highway, Hualalai Resort, Big Island
Guided tour: Offered Tuesdays at 4 p.m. for the general public, Monday through Friday at 11 a.m. for Kona Village guests. Guests also can take a self-guided tour of the petroglyph field at their leisure during their stay; best viewing times are before 10 a.m. and after 2 p.m.
Phone: (808) 325-5555, (800) 367-5290 from the other islands. Reservations must be made at least 24 hours in advance.
Web site: www.konavillage.com
Notes: Wear comfortable clothing and walking shoes. Hats, sunglasses and a liberal dose of sunscreen are recommended.
Bed, Breakfast & Beyond Package: For kamaaina, includes accommodations, breakfast, tennis, access to fitness center and use of ocean sports equipment, enrollment in the Keiki Program. Cost is $160 per person, double occupancy. Valid through January; blackout dates Nov. 19-25. Call (800) 367-5290.
There are canoe sails ranging from 1 to 7 feet in length. There are turtles, coconut trees, kites and kahili (feather standards). There are human figures that appear to be dancing, paddling, fighting, fishing and walking in a burial procession.
Since Opunui began leading hour-long tours of Kona Village's 3.2-acre kii pohaku (petroglyph) field 21 years ago, she has spent countless hours studying the intriguing drawings. Each time she walks the 695-foot-long, 5-foot-wide boardwalk that loops around the central portion of the treasured archaeological site, more questions pop into her mind.
Opunui knows 440 petroglyphs have been documented there (about 75 percent of them can be seen from the boardwalk). She knows they were chiseled with tools made from hard, heavy stone as far back as A.D. 900.
But who carved them? What do they mean? And why do they appear in that particular spot of the warm, sunny Kona-Kohala Coast?
Petroglyphs -- from the Greek words "petros" (stone) and "glyphe" (carving or image) -- are not unique to Hawaii; in fact, they have been found just about everywhere in the world that man has lived.
Pictures carved on natural rock surfaces, be it the ground, boulders, caves or canyons, were the earliest form of written communication. But scholars haven't been able to determine exactly what petroglyphs communicate.
Theories abound. Some speculate travelers created kii pohaku to record things they experienced during their journeys. Others assert the rock drawings were a way to pass stories from one generation to the next. Still others think they symbolize childbirth, family units, implements such as fishhooks and other aspects of daily living.
There are repetitive themes; certain images can be found at sites throughout the Hawaiian Islands. They include dots, circles, canoes, paddles, sails, and humans ranging from crude stick figures to bodies with well-defined torsos and limbs.
COURTESY KONA VILLAGE RESORT
The petroglyph field at Kona Village Resort is accessible via a boardwalk constructed by the resort to help preserve the stone carvings.
Until 1937 there was a fishing village where Kona Village now stands. Its inhabitants knew about the petroglyph field there, but it was not "rediscovered" until the early 1960s when Kona Village's founder, Johnno Jackson, was exploring the site to create his dream resort.
In 1992 a survey team led by esteemed UCLA archaeologist Georgia Lee reported the significance of the find. Six years later, Kona Village built the sturdy Douglas fir and ohia wood boardwalk to protect the fragile drawings.
"The images that interest most people are the canoe sails," said Opunui. "There isn't a single petroglyph of a canoe here, but we have 70 sails facing in different directions. They are all billowing; perhaps they were drawn as requests for the gods to send strong winds so the people could sail their canoes."
According to Opunui, the sails also could signify the arrival or launching of canoes, or the construction of brand-new ones. There are those who believe the proliferation of sail carvings indicates a navigation school was located in the area.
Supporting this theory are more than 20 papamu (checkerboards), many of which were carved near sails. One hypothesis suggests the papamu chart the stars, which Polynesian voyagers used to guide them in their travels across the vast Pacific.
"That makes a lot of sense to me," said Opunui. "I can see the master navigator saying to his students, 'This board represents where the stars are in the sky where we are this time of the year. If you sail south to Tahiti, however, the positions of the stars will be like this.'"
The papamu vary greatly in size, and although they all look squarish, none are exactly square. They also could have been used as game boards, although with few shade trees and hot temperatures prevailing year-round, common sense dictates this wasn't the ideal place for recreation.
Opunui said old-timers she has talked to recall their grandparents using similar papamu as calendars to calculate the best time to go fishing and plant crops. Long ago, papamu also might have been used as abacuses to count fish, sweet potatoes, baskets and other commodities for trading.
She is sure of one thing: Kii pohaku are not random doodles; they were drawn for specific reasons.
"It would've been hard to carve them, especially using stone tools on hard lava in the hot sun," she said. "Making a petroglyph required time and effort that most people probably would put into something more fun and relaxing if they had the choice."
Petroglyphs rank among the great mysteries of the world, and whenever Opunui leads a tour, she asks participants what messages they think the pictures share.
"Each person can look at the same image and come up with a completely different story," said Opunui. "They could all be right; they could all be wrong. At this point we just don't know. That's what makes petroglyphs so fascinating."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.