When they become aware of Hawaii’s petroglyphs during their vacations, visitors often ask us if petroglyphs are “like hieroglyphics.” Well, not exactly. The difference is really basic. Hieroglyphics comprised a means of communication, a language; petroglyphs are art, or if you prefer, graffiti. And while hieroglyphics were rendered in several media, petroglyphs were always carved or scratched in rocks.
Ancient Hawaiians called their stone art k’i’i pohaku, or images in stone. The k’i’i pohaku are petroglyphs (The word comes from the Greek words “petros,” for rock, and “glyphein,” to carve. This rock art provides a unique look into the past, but there is almost no historic evidence of the petroglyph’s origin in Hawaii.
Although the age of Hawaii’s images can’t be determined, a chronology of style can be discerned. The earliest were simple stick figures, while the figures with triangular torsos (which are found only in Hawaii) came later. After Westerners appeared in Hawaii, carvings of horses and cattle appeared and became more common.
Of all the islands, the Island of Hawaii has the greatest number of petroglyphs. The Big Island has more than 70 documented sites featuring petroglyphs. The total count of petroglyphs on the Big Island is around 22,000 images.
Areas of petroglyph concentration are normally found on the smooth pahoehoe lava, cliff faces or smooth interior cliff walls, on the lava inundated areas of the island (Imagine fresh concrete and small boys), and along trails the ancient Hawaiians commonly traveled. There are areas of great concentration, as if they were studios that became fascinating, “natural” museums. One of the best and largest petroglyph fields on the Big Island is the Panau-nui Pu’u Loa petroglyph field in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (a site that should be on your list of places to visit). This particular field consists of more than 15,000 inpidual petroglyph images that have been scratched and pecked into the hard pahoehoe surface.
The trail to the petroglyph field is less than a mile long and easy to follow, but it goes over rough pahoehoe lava. Wear walking shoes and be careful. There are no bathrooms or other facilities on this trail. Take your own water, sun screen, a hat and your camera. You shouldn’t need food.
Once you reach the end of the trail (about a 20-minute walk) you will find a wooden boardwalk surrounding some representative petroglyphs, but the best petroglyphs can be found by leaving the boardwalk.
You’ll also see warning signs. Don’t deface, mark or scratch the petroglyphs. When walking on the petroglyph field, NEVER step on a petroglyph. That will cause it to crumble. Step carefully around the petroglyphs. Don’t take rubbings.
This trail is over natural lava rock. There are cracks, small rises and depressions and loose rocks along the trail. As with all trails in Hawaii, if you wish to look at something, stop walking. Do not walk and look around at the same time. Never take a step backwards without first looking to see what is behind you (there might be a crack in the ground).
There is a huge variety of petroglyph images. The majority show human forms as well as simple dots (holes) or dots surrounded by other shapes (circles, spirals, etc.). You can also find other unusual petroglyphs, including ships, fish, starfish, hooks, insects and capes (or possibly squid).
Often you will see what appears to be a number of related images in a grouping. This probably indicates a family group with different members of the family contributing to the petroglyphs over time.
The best time to do this walk would be early morning, to catch the rising sun, or late afternoon, to catch the setting sun. Not only is it cooler, but also the angle of the sun should help enhance the etched surface of the lava.
Note that while the walks in and out are only about 20 minutes each, you will spend anywhere from an additional 20 minutes (if you only stay on the boardwalk) to an hour or more (if you stray off the boardwalk).
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the second-most visited attraction in the State (Arizona Memorial). It’s full of wonders. Browse the Hawaii-Aloha web site (hawaii-aloha.com), pick an agent from the home page or call 1-800-843-8771. We’ll fill you in and help you work a visit to the area into your vacation plans.