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Types and Uses of Pōhaku

Hawai‘i is built on a firm physical foundation of volcanic rock and coral reefs. As time passes, erosion of land and formation of pōhaku have resulted. Each pōhaku, ‘ili‘ili, and ko‘a were once part of a larger mass. These pōhaku were used to create a foundation for hale (houses), kuapā (fishpond walls), and heiau (temples). Our kūpuna believed that there is mana (power, strength) in everything. Today we continue to use pōhaku as traditional tools to perpetuate our Hawaiian cultural practices.

Crystals Rock!

Student Reader

Volcanic activity can create wonders! Let’s begin with ​ʻaʻā​ and ​pāhoehoe​ flows. When they slowly cool and begin to harden, small open spaces in lava allow certain molecules to gather together in solid, identical, repeating patterns. This is one way that crystals form. The kind of crystals that are created depends upon which minerals get carried to the surface by underground molten rock, magma.
The upper mantle of the Earth contains a huge amount of olivine (ol-eh-VEEN), perhaps  the most abundant mineral in the mantle. Magma brings a lot of it to the surface. Small green and root beer-colored crystals of olivine are common in Hawaiʻi. Even spectacular baseball-sized clusters, called dunite (DUH-night), are easy to find if you know where to look. Hawaiʻi even has green sand beaches made of olivine crystals finely crushed by wave action. In other parts of the world where olivine is softer and less likely to shatter, the crystals are made into jewelry. High quality olivine is called peridot (pear-a-DOE or pear-a-DOT).
Elsewhere on the planet, volcanic activity creates rarer crystals such as emeralds, rubies, and diamonds. But you won’t find such things in Hawaiʻi because they’re typically located in the thickest parts of continental crusts. The Earth’s crust under oceans is 3-6 miles thick, and under Hawaiʻi it’s even thinner. Continental crusts, where rarer crystals are found, can be as much as 30 miles thick!

basalt with olivine                                                                                          olivine

paʻakai, salt crystals
Did you know that even without volcanoes, crystals form? When water evaporates, it may leave behind minerals that develop those same types of solid, identical, repeating patterns. Calcite and salt crystals are created this way.
Many beautiful crystals are found throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Included are photographs of a few.

In the Hawaiian “Stone Age”

by Dr. Sam Gon III, Consultant to Moanalua Gardens Foundation
Illustrations by: Lu Wilson

Archeologists refer to the material culture of ancient Hawai‘i as neolithic, since its basis was via the use of stone tools. In a volcanic setting, metal-bearing ores were unavailable, so the development of tools and weapons was based on a foundation of available materials that included coral-derived limestone, sedimentary sandstone, and a variety of volcanically-derived rocks such as pumice, dense, fine-grained basalt, lighter, more porous basalt, and rather uncommon igneous rocks such as obsidian (volcanic glass), and jasper. With such a limited set of working materials, it is amazing how rocks of various kinds were incorporated into every aspect of Hawaiian life, from warfare to personal grooming, from cooking to creation of carved figures, from house-building to communication, and from agricultural complexes to massive temples.
Pā pōhaku (stone walls) ranged from simple, low constructs that provided more visual separation than physical barriers, to well-engineered double walls, inward sloping, with smaller clinker filling, designed to settle inwards during earthquakes. The culmination of stone structures of course, were massive heiau temple structures, some of which we can still be awe-struck by today, such as Pu‘u Koholā at Kawaihae on the Big Island, or Pi‘ilanihale, in Hāna, Maui, whose sides tower above the kukui tree tops near the rumbling sea. No less marvelous are some of the stonework used to lay out Hawaiian ‘auwai (agricultural canals) and lo‘i (terraces). Intricate and extensive public works covered the bottoms of arable wet valleys, and even brought water long distances to bring agriculture to fertile, but water-limited regions of Kohala. No wonder pre-contact Hawai‘i supported half a million or more people without the need for massive importation of food and goods that we see today. Well aware of the variations in density, porosity, and abrasiveness, Hawaiians matched different rock abraders to the material being worked, from softer pumice (hāpou) to finish woodwork, to hard, fine-grained boulders (pōhaku hoana), against which to hone the finest ko‘i (stone adzes). To discover such grinding boulders at ancient sites is an amazing thing: huge boulders, on which intricate parallel grooves radiate outward, marking the edges of innumerable adzes of different sizes, that were finished or resharpened on such stones over perhaps hundreds of years.
The permanence of stone marked it as supernatural in a world where things are typically born, live, and pass away from physical existence, and it is no surprise that everything from huge stone formations to smaller carved and uncarved pōhaku could be considered kino (bodies) of akua (spiritual beings). The so-called “Crouching Lion” on the island of O‘ahu is a fine example: in Hawaiian mo‘olelo, this is Kauhi‘ïmakaokalani, a kupua fated to a permanent watch station, and who, in his effort to arise and join Hi‘iaka in her quest for sister Pele, was able to assume a crouch before he was again petrified by greater powers than he could muster.
Smaller pōhaku reflected a myriad of ‘aumākua, from the famous pueo (owl) stone god to stones that represent manō (sharks), fish, and other creatures. Of course, stones were worked into human form too, perhaps the best known being those found on the small NW island of Necker, which show strong traces of Marquesan carving style, and verify the shared cultural heritage of Polynesia as well as an extension of the Pacific voyaging tradition.
It is no wonder that in a volcanic landscape in which rock forms the foundation, weathers into soils, and thus provides the ground from which food and therefore life is generated, Hawaiians would equate their own lives to pōhaku. Among the innumerable ‘ōlelo no‘eau that mention pōhaku, there is a saying likening the people of Kona to lava boulders, which reflects on their numbers, their toughness, and their unity with the land. One only has to sit on the lava fields of Kona on a hot, windless day to realize also that the people of Kona would have been so sunbaked and dark, that when they sat still among the stones, they would essentially disappear among them!
There are so many terms for the different kinds of rocks, and terms for special tools and devices made from pōhaku that to even list them all would require a small book. Some of my favorite pōhaku related items include:
Type                                     Descriptions
kilo pōhaku                       dark polished stone mirrors which provide a fine reflection of one’s
                                               face when covered with a sheen of water
pōhaku kīkēkē                 bell stones which would render a clear, loud tone audible throughout
                                               the ahupua‘a in time of need
pōhaku kōhi                      stone tools for splitting hot baked breadfruit, again part of a
                                               Marquesan legacy
ma‘i pōhaku                      phallic stones, such as the famous Kauleonanahoa on Moloka‘i, that                                                     women would sit upon to ensure pregnancy
maika                                  gaming stones which were carved convex discs rolled for accuracy
                                              between close-set stakes during the Makahiki season. So devoted to
                                              such pastimes were our Hawaiian ancestors that the list of different                                                      maika types based on material, size, shape, and color, provide a page
                                              full of names.
So the next time you hear that ancient Hawaiians lived in the stone-age, you will know just how rich a life that was. It provides a legacy of pride that is reflected even in the popular song “Kaulana Nā Pua,” whose third verse tells us
“Ua lawa mākou i ka pōhaku, i ka ‘ai kamaha‘o o ka ‘āina.”
The stones are wealth enough for us, the astounding sustenance of the land.

Moanalua Gardens Foundation 11/2002