In January, a group of Native Hawaiians--including lineal descendants and cultural practitioners--gathered with other culturally minded individuals to listen to archaeologists present their most recent findings on the numerous cultural sites identified within the proposed Honua'ula development (formerly called Wailea 670).
Charlie Jencks, representing the ownership, told those in attendance that their mana'o (thoughts) were being recorded and would later be transcribed and included in the Archaeological Inventory Survey (AIS) being prepared by the lead archaeologist, Dr. Michael Dega of Scientific Consultant Services (SCS).
At the meeting, detailed archaeological survey maps of the 170-acre area were presented, which identified hundreds of new sites and thousands of cultural features, including boundary walls, living compounds, several ahu (stone heaps or platforms used as markers or memorials) and heiau (religious shrines), hearths and hundreds of agricultural terraces forming the newly identified Honua'ula field system.
Michael Lee displays his map of celestial alignments and cultural uses layered over the recent archaeological survey of Honua'ula.
Dr. Dega said radiometric dating of carbon samples indicates that the once-robust field system was in use for several hundred years prior to its eventual abandonment in the last part of the 19th century.
At the end of the archaeological presentation, it was time for audience participation.
Kumu Michael Lee began by referencing the stars. Lee's training as a papakilohoku (star priest) began when he was 4 years old. Ancient Hawaiian cultural knowledge and practices were passed down to him by David Kali of Ni'ihau; Kino Guerrero, Lee's maternal grandfather; and his aunt, Alice Holokai. Lee said that "Auntie" Holokai garnered her knowledge directly from Queen Lili'uokalani.
Today, Lee continues to put into action the cultural practices gleaned from his kupuna, his family's genealogical chants and the Kumulipo (the Hawaiian creation chant).
Trained in traditional western pedagogy, Lee, a former high school teacher, presented a map of his own to share with the group. Lee began by talking about the aka shadow.
"The aka shadow is the spiritual blueprint of the universe," said Lee. "What is in the sky above dictates what will be on the ground below."
Lineal descendant and well-respected kupuna Uncle Les Kuloloio asked Lee what the stars had to do with archaeology.
Around the globe, for thousands of years, Lee said, humans have built structures with celestial alignments. Stonehenge is a prime example. Thousands of years ago, Neolithic farmers living in what is now England wanted to mark the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. So they built a solar calendar--first out of wood and later out of stone. Each year on the day of the summer solstice, the morning sun rises directly in line with the Heel Stone. According to Michael Lee, there is a similar dynamic at work at Honua'ula.
Lee told the group he has done numerous mathematical calculations based on the movements of the sun and stars and their relation to the cultural sites the archaeologists had mapped on the ground. For Lee, the Honua'ula field system and concomitant sites form a gigantic cosmic map or celestial calendar that informed its residents when it was the best time to plant 'uala (sweet potato).
"The lowest fields align with the sun's position in late October-early November--the beginning of the Makahiki," Lee said. "This is the time to plant."
According to Lee, as the sun moves up the mountain, its path is marked by regular stone alignments; these alignments, in turn, showed ancient farmers which fields to plant and when.
What Lee is proposing is not new or unique to Hawai'i. Archaeoastronomy is a rapidly growing, legitimate field of scientific research that's been around for over a century. Simply put, it is the study of how people in the past understood and recorded celestial phenomena and how this knowledge shaped their culture. The Polynesian voyagers who first colonized Hawai'i brought with them a culture based on a supreme understanding of the rising and setting of the stars.
In 2006, Dr. Patrick Kirch, a well-respected archaeologist at UC Berkeley, did some calculations regarding the odd orientation of the Loaloa heiau in Kaupo. Built under the rule of King Kekaulike around 1720, this heiau luakini is located at the most eastern edge of a large dry land field system similar to the smaller one identified at Honua'ula.
According to Kirch's calculations, in the early part of the 18th century, the heiau directly aligned with the rising of the Makali'i (the Pleiades) star cluster. The rising of this constellation marked the beginning of the Makahiki.
In 2012, then-University of Hawai'i, Manoa, doctoral candidate Scott Kekuewa Kikiloi presented his dissertation research on the meaning behind the stone alignments on northwest Hawaiian Islands of Nihoa and Mokumanamana. According to Dr. Kikiloi's research, the formerly ambiguous stones align with the northernmost transit of sun over the archipelago-- what ancient Hawaiians referred to as the "black shining road of Kane" and what we know as the summer solstice.
According to Dr. Kikiloi, "The layered meanings make it critical that the researchers have a background in language to understand the intricacies, many of which are difficult or impossible to translate. The intricacies are called 'kaona' or 'hidden meaning,' but they can also be referred to as 'veiled expressions.'"
Near the end of his presentation, Lee wanted to make one thing perfectly clear. What he was offering to the group were not his opinions--they were facts based on traditional knowledge passed down to him by his kupuna.
For Lee, the work done by the archaeologists is admirable and valuable, but it is not holistic. So far, he said, their work has been limited to quantifying aspects of the culture by counting, describing, mapping, photographing and testing the various sites and features.
"It's not their fault they lack the traditional knowledge that would allow them to make truly qualitative statements as to why certain structures were built and where," said Lee.
At sites such as Honu'ula and other across the state, Lee is attempting to lift the veil and shed light on the cultural meanings behind the creation of sites, and in doing so, change the way we understand the past.
Lee said this knowledge has been "in the box too long." By making hidden meanings accessible, cultural practitioners such as Lee and Native Hawaiian archaeologists like Dr. Kikiloi are shifting the paradigm from one of quick mitigation to one of understanding and long-term perpetuation.