Puu Loa Petroglyphs
About 16 miles from the rim of Kilauea, on the southeastern coast of the Big Island, is a trailhead that leads to Puu Loa, Hawaii’s largest field of petroglyphs. The site, within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, contains over 23,000 centuries-old etchings—of dimples, circles, bars, even humans and sailing canoes—in hardened lava formed sometime between the years 1200 and 1450.
William Ellis, an English missionary who traveled to the Hawaiian Islands in the 1820s, was the first to describe the decorated puu, or hill, in writing. “On inquiry, we found that they [the petroglyphs] had been made by former travelers, from a motive similar to that which induces a person to carve his initials on a stone or tree, or a traveler to record his name in an album, to inform his successors that he had been there,” he wrote. “When there were a number of concentric circles with a dot or mark in the center, the dot signified a man, and the number of rings denoted the number in the party who had circumambulated the island.”
In addition to being a travelogue of sorts, the petroglyph field is a sacred site where native Hawaiians have been known to bury the umbilical cords of newborns. “A hole is made in the hard crust, the cord is put in and a stone is placed over it. In the morning the cord has disappeared; there is no trace of it. This insures long life for the child,” wrote anthropologist Martha Beckwith in 1914.