Cover: South Maui, cliff face. From the time when the triangular body figure emerged, around AD 1300, petroglyph designs exhibit a gradually increasing freedom from the persistence of tradition and conventional forms. This "liberated" artist invented an expressive symbol. Beside the original image is a brilliant abstraction that pays homage to the original design.
"Petroglyphs are our writing and tell our mo'olelo", a Native Hawaiian kupuna (elder) says. (Mo'olelo means story, tale, myth, history, tradition, literature, legend, journal, log, yarn, fable, essay, chronicle, record, article; and minutes, as of a meeting.) "Aren't these exactly the purposes to which writing has always been put? They record in stone what our people valued. The petroglyphs were pecked into stone because the ancestors meant them to be seen and to last, to preserve information for future generations. I cannot help but feel that they are also descriptive of personages and individual persons who were very strong in specific professions a secretive story was seen and not heard."
Petroglyph makers throughout the world, created images of life forms, geometrics, and objects using lines, shapes, and textures abraded or incised into rock surfaces. Pictographs, or rock paintings, are found at only a few known sites in Hawai'i. It is a means for the preservation and transfer of information and commemoration of people, places, events, material culture, and life forms. Some petroglyphs are thought to be metaphors, symbols, maps, and territorial markers. A few may mark seasons, e.g., the equinox petroglyph site on O`ahu. Ethnology suggests that poho (cup-like pits) were made at Pu'uloa, Hawai'i (local residents refer to it as Hill of Long Life) to be receptacles for the piko, (a newborn's navel stump) in a ritual that asks for a long life.
There is no categorical petroglyph style common to Polynesia, as a whole. This could be due to such things as breaks in cultural continuities caused by migrations across broad expanses of ocean and time, and/or iconoclastic tendencies. Did the migrants go directly to their final destination or progress from island-to-island? Relatively unique rock art styles within each island group evolved distinct from the few geometric Samoan types. Until recently, the only exceptions we found are large numbers, in Hawai'i and the Marquesas and a few in Mo'orea, Tahiti, of nearly identical ancient linear figure types. Such stylistic similarities support theories about early contacts between these islands. Recent information prompts a closer look at Malaysia. New photos show that linear figure types found in Peninsular Malaysia closely resemble Hawaiian, Marquesan, and Mo'orean types.
Experimental radiocarbon dating suggests a minimum date for the appearance of the triangular body type around AD 1300. This broad shouldered, terrible, and handsome icon is a profound change from the ancient, severely simple and anonymous, linear body figure. It gradually replaced the linear figure as the dominant anthropomorphic type, and became the visual symbol for masculine, and possibly chiefly, power on the Island of Hawai'i. This implies a profound social change, possibly coinciding with the arrival of Chief Pa'ao from Kahiki, as described in oral histories and genealogies.
It is unlikely that the specific meanings of Hawaiian petroglyphs will ever be known. From the time of Captain Cook (1778) until the late Nineteenth Century, writings about petroglyphs (except for the important contributions by John Stokes) were essentially descriptions of sites and individual petroglyphs. However, rock art embodies the values of the petroglyph maker and his or her culture at the time the image was created. Present day recordings of rock art sites are providing an inventory and the data by which to study rock art as a means for the preservation and transfer of information and values, and as material culture and art. Previously neglected, Hawaiian words, names, dates, and thoughts, inscribed side-by-side with conventional petroglyphs, are now recognized as a promising pathway for research into the past.