Mauna Kea
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Digging Into History
Honolulu Star-Bulletin
by Helen Altonn
Nov. 15, 1976


A surprising remnant of the prehistoric Hawaiians — a lock of human hair — was found by a Bishop Museum archaeologist investigating the Mauna Kea adz quarry.

Among other significant discoveries of Patrick McCoy and his team were extremely rare rock paintings, a group of petroglyphs, about 40 religious shrines and a large quantity of bird and fish bones.

McCoy, who spent the past two summers exploring the 12,400-foot high quarry, said the hair “was a real surprise…a very unusual find.”

He was startled to see it under a slab at the base of a shrine that his crew chose to map in detail. But he said, “Preservation up there is excellent because the climate is so dry and cold.”

He said the strand was four to five inches long and reddish brown, although it may have changed color over the centuries.

McCoy believes Hawaiians worked the quarry as long ago as 1100 A.D. or even earlier. Radiocarbon dates range from 1400 to 1650 A.D. but he has samples of material which he believes will date the site much earlier.

“It also looks to be abandoned before 1800, which is interesting,” he said, noting that no historic artifacts such as metal or glass were found at any sites.

It would be understandable if the Hawaiians stopped working the quarry after the introduction of metals, he said. But why would they do it before?

“I can’t explain it but it’s significant,” he commented. “Perhaps it was because of political disruptions or for social reasons.”

The adz quarry, where ancient Hawaiians manufactured stone tools, is the largest in Polynesia and possibly in the world.

It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1969 but little was known about it until McCoy’s investigation.

His research was funded with a $38,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and $7,500 each from the Cooke Foundation and the National Historic Preservation Act program.

The NSF also gave him $7,000 for laboratory analyses of the “literally tons of material” that he collected.

McCoy took 11 persons on the past summer’s expedition, including Fiorenzo Ugolini, University of Washington soil scientist, who is collaborating with the archaeologist.

“There is a lot of potential in the soils for an understanding of climatic conditions on Mauna Kea going back considerably in the past,” McCoy said.

He said there were periods when the Hawaiians didn’t go to the quarry “for at least a few years,” possibly because of wet and cold conditions. “There may have been a snow cap on the mountain all year long…”

McCoy said the quarry covers 7 _ square miles with sites from the 8,600 foot elevation up to Lake Waiau.

He counted 17 rock shelters, most of which are at the 12,000-foot level because it has the best quality basalt and the greatest amount.

“They were very selective,” he said. “They actually mined the material. Huge pits were dug out below the surface. A lot of work was involved. It was tremendous.”

“This is one of the things we can really appreciate now — the difficulty of heavy work at that elevation,” he added.

Among his more exciting discoveries was one panel of pictographs, or rock paintings, which he said are extremely rare.

He said they are the only examples of rock art that he knows of on Mauna Kea, “but unfortunately they aren’t very distinct.” One appears to be a shark and another an octopus, he said.

A single group of petroglyphs, primarily of human figures, also was found.

Although he expected to find religious shrines, he was amazed at the large number. He said the construction is very simple, with a series of stones placed in a vertical position. “They really stand out,” he said.

He also was surprised to find perform adzes and waste flakes on some of the shrines, indicating that a portion of manufacturing activity took place there.

The group collected coconut sennet, tapa cloth remnants, pandanus mat fragments, a wooden fire stick and other perishable items preserved by the climate.

McCoy said a lot of plant material was found in the rock shelters. “This stuff was sort of a clue to the length of time they were spending there beyond adz-making.”

For instance, he said, the pandanus was probably used to repair mats or baskets.

He believes the people stayed there a week or two at a time during the summers. “It was definitely a seasonal thing because of the climate.

“They did bring up a fair quantity of fish and birds and prepared foods — poi, dried bananas and opihi in the shell.”

He said the opihi probably was “a pupu — a delicacy,” but birds apparently were an important part of the adzmakers’ diet.

Alan Ziegler, museum vertebrate zoologist, is examining the bird bones, including remains of the dark rumped petrel, Hawaiian crow, nene and Hawaiian duck.

“From the number of bones there was clearly a large colony of petrel on Mauna Kea when Hawaiians were exploiting the mountain,” McCoy said. “Today they are very rare.”

All of the birds except the petrel were taken to the site from the settlement below, he said. He said bones of a flightless rail and a number of small forest birds also were found.

McCoy said the quarry was a big production center that probably produced more tools than the coastal people needed.

“They must have been trading with other areas on the big Island or possibly with other islands,” he said.

He believes the adzmakers were a select group of very skilled craftsmen. “But they obviously had a lot of failures. We were finding all the rejects — the garbage,” he said.

He said it will take some time to analyze his findings and coordinate data from other scientists studying the birds and soil. The California Academy of Sciences also is studying the fish bones.

Although his field work is completed, he said, “We could work up there for years. We have really just begun.”

He will do a planning study for the State Department of Land and Natural Resources concerning the site’s research potential, proposals for future work and measures to protect the prehistoric quarry, particularly with expanded activities on the mountain.

He believes a small portion of the quarry should be open to the public and the rest closed for research. “It’s very fragile,” he said.

 

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