In the Hawaiian Islands -- on the barren lava fields of Kona -- lies the historic City of Refuge. Here for more than 700 years, ancient Hawaiians found sanctuary after violating the sacred laws of the kapu, which was then punishable by death. Once a safe haven for the island’s aboriginal peoples, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park preserves ancient Polynesian sites and practices that still influence the Hawaiian people. The park offers great insight into Hawaii’s ancient Polynesian history and culture through the structures at the Honaunau (royal grounds); the Pu’uhonua (City of Refuge); the Ki’i (wooden statues) guarding the temple of Hale o Keawe; the great wall marking the boundary between the royal grounds and the Pu’uhonua; and the nearby Kiilae village.
At Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, a large wall marks the division between the royal grounds or Honaunau and the refuge quarters or Pu’uhonua. The royal grounds of Honaunau descend from the slope of Mauna Loa to the ocean, which provided the 13th century village with optimal land for farming. The location of the royal quarters on Honaunau Bay also gave residents access to fresh drinking water. Servants caught fish from the royal pond to serve the village ali’i (chiefs). Residents had access to the resources they needed, but travel to and from the island was not possible for villagers who did not belong to the royal court. Chiefs and their attendants were the only inhabitants of Honaunau who could use the canoe landing on the beach. To prevent villagers from using the canoes or leaving Honaunau, Ki’is (wooden images) stood around the temple of Hale o Keawe to caution residents against defying the kapu.
Built around 1650, Hale o Keawe served as a temple and mausoleum for the remains of Pu’uhonua o Honaunau’s 23 chiefs. According to ancient Hawaiians, the bones of the deceased chiefs held mana (great spirtual power), and burying the chiefs’ bones at Hale o Keawe would protect the village, especially the Pu’uhonua or City of Refuge. The ancient Hawaiians built the temple at the entrance of the Pu’uhonua. They believed that placing Ho’okupu (offerings) on the stone structure’s lele (tower) would allow them to make personal requests for their own salvation.
Adjacent to Hale o Keawe, marking the boundary line between the royal grounds and Pu’uhonua or refuge area, is the massive stonewall ancient Hawaiians erected in 1550 of unmodified chunks of lava. The wall is over 1000 feet long, 12 feet high and 18 feet wide. Beyond the wall are the barren lava fields of Pu’uhonua, which Reverend William Ellis termed in 1823, the “City of Refuge.” Here, the remains of the chiefs at Hale o Keawe protected women, children, and elders who, in times of war, left the royal grounds and traveled to Pu’uhonua to wait in safety until battles or disputes among chiefs were over and resolved.
The City of Refuge was a safe haven for noncombatants, vanquished and defeated warriors, and defiant villagers who had broken the kapu. Individuals charged with violating the kapu were usually commoners who had looked at the chief, approached him without being a member of the royal court or an attendee, walked in his footsteps, or touched the chief’s possessions. A commoner was also guilty of violating the kapu if his shadow fell on the royal grounds. For women, the laws were stricter. According to the kapu, a woman could not eat the food offered to the gods, prepare meals for male villagers, or eat in the presence of men.
In Hawaii’s ancient Polynesian culture, the penalty for a person who violated a sacred law was always death since Hawaiians believed that if they did not execute a defiant villager, the gods would react violently and allow the village to fall victim to natural disasters. To protect their village from volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, famine, or earthquakes, the warriors of Honaunau pursued commoners who violated the kapuuntil they captured and executed them, or until lawbreakers managed to swim over to Pu'uhonua or City of Refuge. Since the remains of the chiefs protected the refuge area, the warriors could not shed blood on the sacred grounds of Pu’uhonua, and so they would end their pursuit of the lawbreakers who found refuge there.
After reaching the City of Refuge, a villager would ask the Hale o Keawe gods for a second chance at life. The priest would then perform the ceremony of absolution, which eventually allowed the lawbreaker to return to Honaunau. Since all ancient Hawaiians respected and honored the sanctity that the remains of the chiefs at Hale o Keawe bestowed on Pu’uhonua, lawbreakers would not face execution at Honaunau upon their return, and therefore believed that the gods had granted their requests for a second chance at life.
Hale o Keawe continued to infuse peace and forgiveness at Pu’uhonua until 1819, when the beloved Hawaiian King Kamehameha I died. Following the king’s death, the Hawaiians, who built Hale o Keawe in honor of Kamehameha’s great-grandfather Keawe'ikekahiali'i o kamoku, abandoned their ancient religion and soon after destroyed many of the island’s religious structures. Although Pu’uhonua and Hale o Keawe escaped demolition--perhaps due to the Hawaiian’s respect for or fear of the ancient spirits--the abandoned temple, refuge city, and Great Wall suffered harmful effects from the island sun, breeze, and ocean.
Efforts to preserve Pu’uhonua o Honaunau’s historic structures began in the 20th century. Pu’uhonua o Honaunau’s Great Wall and Hale o Keawe temple were stabilized and restored in the 1960s when the site became a national historical park. Illustrations and sketches of voyagers who documented their discoveries in Hawai'i in the early 1820s guided much of the restoration work. Reverend William Ellis' 1823 sketches of Hale o Keawe and its surrounding structures were particularly helpful.
At the park, visitors can enjoy the scenery, the historic structures of Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, and other ancient ruins of Kona such as the village of Kiilae, which offers a glimpse of the transitional period when Hawai'i began to change after the first European encounters. Until its abandonment in 1926, Kiilae was a place that reflected both ancient Polynesian traditions and modern aspects of life. Villagers built their straw houses with tin roofs and glass windows. They made fish hooks with metal, but continued to style the hooks in the shape and form of the older bone hooks once used by their ancestors. At the Kiilae “cave of refuge” is the famous spring of Queen Emma’s mother, who was the mother-in-law of Kamehameha IV. Today, what remains of this once thriving village are the abandoned heiaus (temples), and holua slides, which were sledding tracks used by Kiilae chiefs.
Take a virtual tour of Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park sites.
Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. National Park Service.
Ladd, Edmund J. Hale-o-Keawe Archeological Report: Archeology at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. Edited by Gary F. Somers. Western Archeological and Conservation Center Publications in Anthropology No. 33. National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 1985.
Soehren, Lloyd J. and Donald P. Tuohy. Archeological Excavations at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, Honaunau, Kona, Hawai'i. Departmental Report Series, Report 87-2. Department of Anthropology, Bishop Museum, 1987.
Last updated: November 13, 2018