mine Mauna Kea for knowledge
by Bruce Benson
Nov. 23, 1975
| Patrick McCoy is a man who’s starting
at the top and working his way down. Eventually, he may produce a
clearer picture of what the world’s tallest mountain looked
like before the drastic changes of the last hundred years.
McCoy, a Bishop museum anthropologist, just returned from four serene
months at the summit of Mauna Kea. He and four or five helpers conducted
the first archaeological dig at what turns out to be the largest adze
quarry in Polynesia.
Early-day Hawaiians were attracted to the high, barren summit of Mauna
Kea by what McCoy described as “the best-quality basalt in the
whole Hawaiian chain.”
There, amid the rubble of a Pleistocene glacier, the Hawaiians fashioned
the precious basalt into adzes. The tools later would be circulated
within the kingdom to carve canoes, make house posts, render tikis
and accomplish other essential tasks.
McCoy, his assistant Paul Cleghorn and others returned from a summer
season of six-day workweeks with hundreds of bags of material, all
of it labeled and awaiting a closer look.
Digging into the adz quarry, the Bishop Museum expedition found
clues not only to the techniques of adz making but also to what
may have been going on farther down the flanks of the great mountain.
"Excavating at rock shelters within the quarry was quite revealing,"
said McCoy, "We removed a lot of faunal material which will
tell us an awful lot about the diet of the adze workers." The
material included remnants of fish bones, bird bones, some bones
of mammals, fish shells and kukui nuts.
McCoy said that an entire door of research is opening on what Mauna
Kea may have been like before introduced grazing animals such as
pigs, sheep and cows began ruining native vegetation, and introduced
avian diseases carried by mosquitoes eliminated numerous species
of unique Hawaiian birds.
"At one point it seems there must have been very large bird
colonies nesting on Mauna Kea. It would have been a dependable supply
of food for them. You can almost imagine what the mountain looked
like — nice grasses across the slopes, with patches of native
strawberries, huckleberries, scrub cover of mamane. Remnants of
wood plants have been found at up to 10,000 or 11,000-feet elevation.”
The quarry is the best-preserved in Hawaii. The museum’s Dr.
Kenneth Emory visited briefly for a few days in 1937, but the quarry
had never been studied until McCoy got a $38,000 grant from the
National Science Foundation.
“In fact, there have been no definite studies of any Polynesian
adz quarries, about the actual techniques of making the adzes,”
“We started off with a general reconnaissance to define the
boundaries. We did an awful lot of walking and found out the area’s
much larger than anyone, including myself, had calculated.
"It's roughly 4 square miles, 2 miles on each side. We flagged
individual sites in the area, then went back and recorded in detail
each of the areas.
“There are at least 16 major facilities within the quarry.
There are mounds of flakes, some of them nearly 20 feet high, with
a diameter of 50 feet. It's staggering, bewildering, when you see
it for the first time. There's nothing, I'm sure, that can compare
The quarry detectives pitched tent several thousand feet below the
13,796-foot summit, away from stiff winds, low temperatures, thin
air, and occasional slett, rain and snow.
Mauna kea is the highest mountain in the world, higher even than
the 29,028 feet of Mount Everest if measured from the sea floor.
From ocean base to peak it’s estimated to be from 29,400 to
30,000 feet tall.
How the early Hawaiians prodigiously created the largest adz quarry
of all Polynesia in such a hostile environment is part of the mystery
that has attracted McCoy.
“Besides the work areas, we found rock shelters or small caves,
generally quite small things that the adz workers fixed up a bit,”
he reported. “Most of the shelters have stonewalls built in
front of them to keep out the rain, wind, sleet and snow. It was
pretty cold and windy when we started up there in late June. By
august, however, the weather was getting quite nice.”
McCoy said gusts in excess of 20 knots chilled the bones o f the
workers on some days, occasionally blowing over some of their gear.
"At the last shelter we got quite a thick layer of fibrous
material, including parts of lau hala mat. A botanist will identify
it, but there seems to be remnants of ti plants, sugarcane, gourd
and grasses," he said.
"We've found no historic European items so far. It's possible
the quarry was abandoned early, maybe by 1800.
"We also found that the floors of the shelters are layered
with materials. We excavated down more than 4 feet. We could see
some actual changes in the forms of the adzes. Like women's dresses,
styles changed in adzes too."
Just how early the Hawaiians may have trekked to the mountaintop
is unknown. But McCoy is awaiting test results of carbon dating
and obsidian hydration dating on specimens sent to New Jersey.
How many people worked at any one time to leave behind the enormous
mounds of basalt flakes? Certainly not nearly as many as those who
worked the old quarry of Rano Raraku on Easter Island, home of the
enigmatic stone images investigated by Thor Heyerdahl.
McCoy spent a year on Easter Island while working for his doctorate.
Although the Mauna Kea quarry is much larger, the number of workers
at any one time was smaller, he theorized.
"Our feeling is that maybe there were small task groups of
five to 10 people who'd go up seasonally from different parts of
the island. I don't feel there were hundreds at a time. The rock
shelters are not so big or numerous," he said.
“There were certain days when the guy in our party working
inside one of the shelters had a big advantage over the guy outside.
The big flake mounds were always right outside the shelters, usually
on the leeward side of the weather.”
Another discovery of the summer's work was the presence of offerings
and shrines. "For the first time now we can actually see they
were leaving materials on their shrines, telling us something about
their craft in relationship to their religion," McCoy said.
Other questions arising from the long-silent mountain adz factory
include how many adzes workers could turn out in what period of
time, and how much food they might have needed to take up with them.
The adz worker was probably a craftsman of considerable skill, but
his place as the maker of essential goods in a society of limited
tools seems unknown.
"There is no written or oral history about the quarriers of
Mauna Kea," McCoy noted, "which leads us to suspect that
the site was abandoned quite early. We want to return next summer.
“They’re improving the summit road, which will mean
more traffic going to the top, with more souvenir seekers trying
to take things out of what’s been a national historic landmark
“I think it’s critical that we finish as much as we
can right away.”