Mauna Kea Adze Quarry Project:
A Summary of the 1975 Field Investigations
Bernice P. Bishop Museum
Basalt adze quarries and workshops are known on all the major Hawaiian
islands, but by far the largest, most complex, and best preserved
is that on the island of Hawaii on the south slope of Mauna Kea, extending
from about the 8,600 to the 13,000 foot elevation.
The Mauna Kea Adze Quarry Complex (author's designation) is composed
of a series of extraction areas and chipping stations — large,
clustered areas as well as smaller, isolated ones — with associated
religious shrines, habitation rock-shelters, overhang shelters, and
The quarries extend over an area of approximately 7 1/2 square miles,
although most sites are contained in a 1 and 1/2 square mile area
between the 11,000 and 12,400 ft elevation.
The Mauna Kea quarries are unparalleled in the rest of Polynesia,
and probably in the world. The area is a National Historic Landmark.
In June 1975 the Bishop Museum was awarded a one-year grant by the
National Science Foundation for a project ... under the direction
of the author.
W. D. Alexander noted the presence of a fireplace and remains of shell
fish on the Humu‘ula Trail, at a rock-shelter/workshop that
he called Keanakakoi. This name, which translates literally as "cave
of the adze," appears on modern maps and is widely, but inappropriately,
used today to refer to the quarries as a whole.
The project developed in response to the general lack of knowledge
about the technology of production and range of techniques employed
in making finished Polynesian adzes...
Technological stages in tool manufacture cannot be fully reconstructed
simply from examination of the finished tools — in this case,
ground and polished adzes. The final steps in the sequence of manufacture
often tend to obscure or obliterate traces of earlier stages of production...thus
the best places to look for evidence to reconstruct processes of stone-tool
manufacture are quarries and workshops, where one may observe the
patterning of waste flakes and cores, and examine semi-finished and
The research has the final objective of relating adze production on
Mauna Kea to possible cultural constraints or determining factors,
such as population increase and developing social stratification.
If periods of maximum adze production can be established through dating,
then it becomes possible to relate this one form of economic specialisation
to developments in other economic spheres, such as agricultural production.
The degree of specialisation implied and the extent of manufacturing
activities at this one locality strongly hint that adze production
exceeded local needs and that some adzes made on Mauna Kea were traded
outside the island of Hawaii.
Most of the quarry complex is located on a broad summit plateau encircling
the entire mountain between the 11,000 and the 12,000 ft elevation.
Shrines are simple arrangements of unworked, tabular basalt slabs
oriented in upright position, but varying greatly in number. Adze
preforms, hammerstones, and waste flakes are frequently present on
one side of the upright alignments.
14 features were identified, including open, shallow, basin-shaped
and deeper, stone-lined, fire hearths, a stone enclosing-wall across
the mouth of the rock-shelter, and living surfaces characterized by
bone, shell, adze preforms, hammerstones, etc. on the same horizontal
The [rockshelter] midden contained shell (primarily 'opihi, sea urchin
spines, several pieces of coral, bone of fish, bird, pig and rodents,
kukui nuts, coconut, and gourd, but little other plant matter.
Adze preforms, semi-finished adzes and hammerstones were distributed
throughout the deposits, occurring in a higher frequency at the front
of the shelter and outside the dripline. Basaltic-glass flakes and
cores and birdbone awls complete the artefact inventory.
Perishable artefacts found, rock-shelter 1, Site 50-HA-G28-14: (a)
fire plough, (b) braided cordage — possibly a sandal fragment
(c) Cordage — unknown function, (d) Pandanus matting, (e) Knotted
end of ti-leaf cape.
Other vegetal remains identified include gourd, coconut, pandanus
leaves, ti stalks, kukui nuts, sugarcane, mamane wood and leaves,
and various grasses.
Dating of the rock-shelter remains
earliest date - 1424 AD
final occupation - 1657 AD
A single date of AD 1492 (corrected) for Layer IV in Kookoolau Rock-shelter
No. 1 indicates broad contemporaneity of adze manufacture in different
parts of the quarry complex. It hints at the possibility of a number
of task-groups working at one time.
Dr. Stephen Porter (Univ. of Washington)...suggested that the Hawaiians
were exploiting almost exclusively a single flow of fine-grained,
vitreous basalt. The reconnaissance and follow-up site survey confirmed
Thin sterile lenses of oxidised soil between major occupation units
in both excavated rock-shelters suggest periods of intermittent use.