According to Martha Yent, an archaeologist with Hawaii’s state parks interpretive program, the temple’s purpose and the god it honored probably varied over time. “One chief could have dedicated it to the war god Ku, while another dedicated it to Lono, associated with fertility,” says Yent. When associated with Ku, it likely served as a human sacrificial temple, and in honor of Lono, it would have figured into Makahiki, a festival celebrated to ensure an abundant agricultural season.
It was actually during Makahiki, on January 17, 1779, that British explorer Capt. James Cook arrived at the spot on Kealakekua Bay. It is thought that the timing of his visit and the appearance of his ships’ masts, with sails that resembled an image of Lono made from a pole with bark cloth attached to it, led the local Hawaiians to believe that Captain Cook was Lono. In a ceremony at Hikiau Heiau, they honored the explorer. While docked in the bay, Cook and his crew kept journals documenting their observations of Hawaiian culture. Then, the explorer set sail again on February 4, only to return a week later, after his ship’s mast had broken. Though relations between the Europeans and Hawaiians had been pleasant, on this second visit, tensions flared. When the Hawaiians swiped a rowboat from one of Cook’s ships, Cook, in turn, tried to take Kalaniopuu, the community’s ruling chief, hostage. Cook was killed near the site on February 14, 1779.