Small Places and Big Histories: Palehua, Hawai'i

Contributed by: Tim Gill

It's the part of O'ahu that many visitors never see

Much less lush than the windward side or the valleys behind Honolulu, the southwest or “leeward side” of the island is shielded from tropical rain and weather systems by the Ko‘olau mountains, and remains much more arid.  It doesn’t fit preconceptions of what “going to Hawai‘i” is supposed to be like; it’s not the tropical paradise shown in travel brochures. Growing up in Honolulu in the 60s and 70s, there was never much reason to go there.  It was largely an industrial and agricultural area with acres of sugar cane, warehouses, military installations, and tank farms, but relatively few homes.  I didn’t know anyone from that side of the island.  It seemed far away.

All that changed as population pressures increased and the cultivation of sugar declined.  Today subdivisions are everywhere on the leeward side, squeezing out what agriculture remains. The town of Kapolei is designated to absorb more growth and become a “second city,” next to Honolulu, where residents can live and work without suffering through the difficult commute into town.  The mass transit system now being constructed finds its point of origin in Kapolei.  There are hotels and timeshares. Disney has developed a themed resort with its own beach and simulated Hawaiian culture. Interestingly, a similar demographic process may have taken place in pre-contact times.  The Hawaiian people arrived in these islands a thousand years ago or perhaps a little earlier, and lived predominantly in the lush, green valleys, where cultivation was easier.  By the 1500s, however, population pressures were increasing, bringing political change and causing people to populate parts of the islands that had not previously seen many inhabitants.  The leeward side of O‘ahu island likely experienced an increase in population throughout that period.

Excavation team hike in 2009

Excavation team hike in 2009

The site is magnificent. It is located at an elevation of approximately 1700 feet, the air is cool, and there are stunning views toward the central plain of O'ahu, down to Kapolei, and over the Wai'anae Coast.

It was during this time, most likely the late 1500s or early 1600s, that the Hawaiian people built a rock enclosure in a shallow depression in a volcanic ridge in the mountains above Kapolei, in an area now known as Pālehua.  The site is magnificent.  Because it is located at an elevation of approximately 1700 feet, the air is cool, and there are stunning views toward the central plain of O‘ahu, down to Kapolei, and over the Wai‘anae coast.  Private ownership has prevented development from reaching this area, and today it is a refreshing escape from traffic and noise.

Excavation team at Palehua

Excavation team at Palehua

Excavation site at Test Pits 1 and 2 at the enclosure

Excavation site at Test Pits 1 and 2 at the enclosure

Prior to 2012, no archaeological investigation had been conducted at the rock enclosure, although various theories had been put forward to explain it, and it was assumed to be a structure of cultural significance.  In May 2012 our team of UC Berkeley archaeologists, Hawaiian archaeology students, and volunteers conducted mapping and test excavations of the site.  Approximately nine months later one of our colleagues performed an archaeoastronomical analysis, establishing that the enclosure is precisely aligned with the location on the northeastern horizon where the Pleiades star cluster rises each November.  From those investigations and ethnographic study, we hypothesized that this enclosure had a ceremonial use associated with the annual Makahiki harvest season.  In Hawaiian society the Makahiki season was sacred to the god Lono, and was a time of games, celebration, and tax collection.  We published our findings in an article entitled “Ideology, Ceremony and Calendar in Pre-Contact Hawai‘i: Astronomical Alignment of a Stone Enclosure on O‘ahu suggests Ceremonial Use During the Makahiki Season,” in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, 2015, 124(3): 243-268.In 2014, to guide future excavations at the site, we conducted subsurface scanning using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) throughout the enclosure.  The results have been very promising:  the GPR has detected what could be buried walls, terraces and structure foundations within the current enclosure.  The GPR images suggest that we might find further evidence within the enclosure that ceremonial activities took place there.

Tim Gill conducting digital documentation for one of the excavated areas

Tim Gill conducting digital documentation for one of the excavated areas

We hope to return to this site in the near future, to follow up our prior work and to take a closer look at the areas inside the enclosure that the GPR indicates may have internal features.