Hawaiian Petroglyphs

Hawaiian petroglyphs

Example of Hawaiian petroglyph at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.


The word petroglyph means stone carving. The Hawaiian word for these carvings is ki’i pohaku, meaning image stone. Ancient Hawaiians carved these images into the rough lava rock. The artists would use sharp tools and stone hammers to chip away at the rocks in thin lines. Then they would etch the pictures by scraping repeatedly until the markings were sufficiently deep. This is how one would make Hawaiian petroglyphs in ancient times.

Hawaiian petroglyphs might be carvings of anything from humans to canoes, fish hooks, animals and inscriptions. Many scholars believe that carvings fall under one of three categories: cryptic, symbolic or descriptive. Often the petroglyphs are enigmatic and mysterious and are not easy for historians to understand. When westerners first contacted Hawaiians, there were records of men and women with unique tattoos and markings. Many believed some of them were personal signs or signatures. These individual signs appear to correspond with some of the more cryptic Hawaiian petroglyphs.

Other carvings tell of significant happenings such as births, hunts, battles, sea voyages and similar events. While others represent symbols of long life, mystical creatures or gods in the form of animals.

Human figures are consistent subject matter for Hawaiian petroglyphs. They usually represent men in a triangular shape with broad shoulders and arms. Often, petroglyphs depict people holding spears, fishing poles, paddles, gourds and even standing on surf boards.

Where to Find Hawaiian Petroglyphs

Big Island

Most of the larger collections of petroglyphs are on Hawaii’s Big Island, with more than 100 places where visitors can view them. At the Puako Petroglyph Archeological Preserve in South Kohala, you can see more than 3,000 carvings. Several nearby hotels provide informational brochures about these sites. They also tell visitors on ways to avoid damaging what could be Hawaii’s oldest petroglyphs. Anaeho’omalu Bay, a few miles from the Puako site, is another field where you can view petroglyphs. Here, you’ll find images of people, canoes, circles and cryptic designs.

At the Pu’u Loa archeological site in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Chain of Craters Road are more than 23,000 stone inscriptions and carvings. Other sites are: Kahalu’u Bay near Kailua-Kona, Ka’upulehu near the Kona Village Resort and in Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park. Here, people ornate carvings of ships, canoes and sails.


In Maui there are petroglyphs in Haleakala National Park as well as in Lahaina, among other places.


Kauai’s petroglyphs are visible at the mouth of Wailua River and at Mahaulepu Beach. However, you can only see them after big surf exposes them.


Molokai has carvings on the iconic Phallic Rock in Pala’au State Park.


Lanai’s petroglyphs are scattered all over the island. At Kaunolu and Luahiwa are menacing images of a man-eating bird in the carvings.


On Oahu, there are three petroglyph sites near Nu’uanu Stream in Honolulu. The carvings at Nu’uanu show the image of the terrorizing ghost-dog, Kaupe. Recently, more petroglyphs were found at Pupukea Beach. A series of powerful swells washed away the sand that had been covering them for many years.

One can rightfully expect we may soon uncover more petroglyphs. You never know how the weather may pull back deeper layers of Hawaii. And once this happens, it will unveil more information on Hawaiian petroglyphs.

Vacationers, who want to peer into the past, should see Hawaii’s petroglyphs. This may be the best way to enjoy ancient Hawaiian art. While doing so, admirers are asked to be respectful and not touch the images on Hawaii’s historic petroglyphs sites.

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Hawaii's Best 2023
American Society of Travel Agents
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