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Hawaiian Petroglyphs

Ancient ways in present days.

May 3, 2012
Cindy Schumacher , The Maui Weekly

Countless people throughout Hawai'i recognize that the true future of the islands stems from its past. Many acknowledge the importance of the 'aina and the need to protect it with proper conservation and preservation efforts.

As archaeologist and art historian Dr. Georgia Lee stated in her book, "Spirit of Place: Petroglyphs of Hawai'i," "Times have changed, and the field of study for petroglyphs has grown. In recent years, much more information has become available about ancient Hawai'i and the Hawaiian petroglyphs."

"Scholars suggest that belief systems inseparable from the culture permeate the petroglyphs, and that the two are mutually intertwined." said Lee.

Article Photos

Incorporating part of a USGS topographical map of a section of Hawai‘i Island from the early 1900s, Guy Junker photographed one of his own stone carvings of canoe paddlers and used various painting and etching techniques.
Photo courtesy of Guy Junker

Through the development of symbols, petroglyphs helped to put man on the road to writing. The word "pertroglyph" comes from the Greek word "petras" (rock) and "glyphen" (to carve). Literally, petroglyphs are rock carvings or kaha ki'i--a scratched picture. The ancient Hawaiians also called them ki'i pohaku--stone images.

"It is vital that Hawai'i's petroglyphs be studied in their contexts, for they are intimately related to their natural settings," said Lee.

Possible uses for ki'i pohaku may have been to indicate land division, navigation, celebration of a personal experience, or acknowledgment of ancestors.

"According to kupuna accounts, petroglyphs were used to indicate the connection of specific families to places such as a spring or cave shelter," said Sierra Club hike leader Lucienne de Naie.

"Most researchers describe petroglyphs as being carved with a hammer stone and a pecking tool, the latter, a piece of dense basalt with one end ground to a finer point," she said. "Age is currently determined by charcoal dating that associates petroglyphs with site areas that date back 600 years."

There are more than 100 locations throughout the islands that contain Hawaiian petroglyphs. Olowalu is the easiest location on Maui to access and observe them. However, "They are also found along a number of natural gulches and in certain lava flows on the island," de Naie said.

Petroglyphs are not randomly placed. Most of the ancient carvings are found in groups at places that the Hawaiians believed had a concentration of cosmic force known as mana.

The ancient Hawaiians integrated all aspects of life. What may seem to be a religious ritual or an act of magic could as well be described as a custom, a practical necessity or a useful technique. The student of the Hawaiian petroglyphs must face this ambiguity, since many of the various types seem to reflect actions, intentions and meanings on several levels at once.

In present days, petroglyphs are being seen from the framework of our own artistic values. It is not often that you come across modern art that carries the texture and essence of something hundreds of years old. While observing petroglyphs, we can imagine what it must have been like here hundreds of years ago.

Maui artist Guy Junker bridges that gap, providing an opportunity to preserve the wisdom of our ancestors and apply it to our modern times. Junker's work reflects his study of an artistic craft that represents petroglyphs as some of the earliest artifacts of humanity.

"Hawaiian petroglyphs are one of my favorite subjects," Junker said.

Contrasting the natural curves of petroglyphs with hard geometric shapes painted on textured wood panels, Junker creates forms otherwise difficult to produce on traditional canvas.

"My work is about a unique display of contrasts--ancient symbols created in a contemporary style," said Junker. "They are simple rock drawings, but things that look simple are often difficult to master," he said.

Despite spectacular high-rise buildings, beautiful plunging mountain valleys, tropical scenery and great surf to distract him, O'ahu resident and professional photographer Sean Davey is also drawn to petroglyphs. In fact, he has captured what may be the most extraordinary petroglyph photo to date.

"Located within the 7-mile miracle between Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach are the most unique petroglyphs that I've ever seen," said Davey.

Usually covered in a layer of sand some 20 feet deep, these amazing carvings are exposed only every few years, and then for a very short time.

"These petroglyphs rarely see the light of day," he said. "It happens only after several very large swells manage to move the sand away temporarily. I have seen them uncovered only once in the 15 years that I have lived in Hawai'i."

Petroglyphs, once described as abstract objects, are an irreplaceable, historically important feature of Hawai'i. Viewing them in the context of the modern world is a powerful reminder that we live on an island rich in history and culture.

To order a canvas or print of Sean Davey's Hawaiian petroglyphs, visit Visit artist Guy Junker at or call (808) 661-0923.

The Sierra Club offers educational hikes that teach about petroglyphs and how to conserve them for future generations. For information on Maui hikes, go to



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