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Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
Honaunau, Hawaii
View across water of the Hale o Keawe heiau with Great Wall, palisade, and carved wooden statues Hale o Keawe Heiau
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park is located on the Kona (west) coast of the Island of Hawai'i. For more than 700 years ancient Hawaiians could find sanctuary here after violating kapu. Hawaiians who violated kapu could avoid death by fleeing to this area and seeking refuge until they were absolved by a priest. People could also find sanctuary here during wars. Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park preserves the ancient sanctuary site and royal living area as well as other ancient and modern sites that are still important to the Hawaiian people and that offer insights into Hawaii's ancient Polynesian history and culture.

The Island of Hawai'i was historically divided into six moku (districts), each having its own ali'i (chiefs) and pu'uhonua (place of refuge). The exact date of the creation of the Pu'uhonua at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau is unknown, but it was in existence prior to the 1500s and served as the refuge for the Kona moku. The pu'uhonua were safe havens for people who had broken kapu and for noncombatants and vanquished or defeated warriors during times of war. Kapu was the Hawaiian system of religious, political, and social laws that governed every aspect of daily life. It involved elaborate sanctions regarding behavior between individuals and among classes and was particularly restrictive. Violations of kapu ranged from a commoner looking directly at an ali'i, women eating in the presence of men, an individual having their head higher than an ali'i, and women eating foods forbidden to them such as bananas, coconuts, and taro. Breaking kapu was a capital offence punishable by death. Individuals charged with violating kapu were usually commoners and the kapu system was the major social control helping to preserve class distinctions and keep power concentrated among the ali'i.

In ancient Hawaiian culture, the penalty for a person who violated kapu was death. Hawaiians believed that if they did not execute someone who had violated kapu, the gods would react violently and cause natural disasters. To protect villages from volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, famine, or earthquakes, people who violated kapu were pursued by warriors until they were either captured or managed to find refuge in a sacred place such as a pu'uhonua. The warriors could not shed blood on the grounds of a pu'uhonua, so they would end their pursuit.

View looking into a steepled thatched roof halau building with palm trees in the front and around the back Halau at the Royal Grounds
Courtesy of the National Park Service

After reaching a pu'uhonua, a person would go to the heiau (place of worship) at the site and ask the gods for a second chance at life. Priests would then perform a ceremony of absolution, which allowed the lawbreaker to return home. Since all Hawaiians respected and honored the sanctity of a pu'uhonua, lawbreakers would not face execution upon their return.

Built circa 1700, the heiau of Hale o Keawe served both as a place of worship at the pu'uhonua and a mausoleum for the remains of the Kona coast ali'i. The bones of the deceased ali'i were believed to hold mana (great spiritual power) and burying them at Hale o Keawe sanctified and validated the pu'uhonua. Hale o Keawe has a thatched roof hale (building), a wooden palisade, and multiple ki'i (wooden statues). Also located at the Pu'uhonua are the platform remains of 'Ale'ale'a – which served as the main heiau until the construction of Hale o Keawe – and the ruins of an even older heiau platform dating to 1475.

Next to the the Pu'uhonua are the Royal Grounds of Honaunau, home to the ali'i of the Kona moku. Located in the ahupua'a (land division) of Honaunau, the royal grounds are centered around Keone'ele Cove just south of the pu'uhonua. The Royal Grounds contained residences for the ali'i, thatched halau (work areas), a coconut palm grove, and the Heleipalala fishponds. It also had a canoe landing that was forbidden for commoners to enter or use. Ki'i (carved wooden statues) still stand watch over the landing and a carved wooden marker is located in Keone'ele Cove to warn people that the area was once kapu.

Separating the Royal Grounds from the Pu'uhonua is a massive stone wall built in 1550. Constructed of unmodified lava rock, the mortarless L-shaped Great Wall is 965 feet long, 12 feet high, and 18 feet wide with both of its ends terminating near the ocean's edge. The wall forms a barrier on the land side of the Pu'uhonua and historically it had no opening. People trying to enter the pu'uhonua to seek sanctuary would either have to swim in from the ocean side or run around the Great Wall to one of its ends before they could enter the refuge.

On top of the Great Wall looking south with palm trees on either side Top of the Great Wall looking south
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau also preserves the 1871 Trail, part the Ala Kahakai, an ancient system of trails that encircled the Island of Hawai'i and connected the villages along the coast. This portion of the Ala Kahakai was last improved in 1871, hence the name "1871 Trail." Located along the trail is the Alahaka ramp, built in the mid-1800s to replace a rope/ladder used to reach the top of steep cliffs. The ramp allowed horses to transport people and goods up and down the cliffs and connected the trail with the village of Ki'ilae. Built in the late 1700s and abandoned in the mid-1920s, the village area offers insights into the transitional period after European discovery when Hawaiian culture was changing rapidly, but people still continued to follow the traditional routines and customs of daily life.

Also located along the trail is the Keokea hōlua slide. He'e hōlua, "sled surfing, or "land sledding," was an important sport in Hawaii, played by the ali'i during the Makahiki festival, the four-month winter New Year's celebration. The hōlua slide was made by lining the ground with paved stones, dirt, and grass. coating it with kukui (candlenut) oil, and then using a papa hōlua (sled) to race from the top of the hill down the holua slide to the water. Along with the Keokea hōlua slide, there are several other hōlua slides at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau as well as around the Island of Hawai'i.

The pu'uhonua and heiau at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau fell into disrepair after the kapu system was abolished in 1819 at Kamakahonu, the royal residence and capital of the Kingdom of Hawai'i. Although the pu'uhonua and the heiau of Hale o Keawe escaped destruction the abandoned sites and the Great Wall suffered from neglect and began to slowly deteriorate.

In 1867, the entire ahupua'a (traditional Hawaiian unit of land) of Honaunau including Pu'uhonua o Honaunau was purchased by Charles Reed Bishop, an American businessman and philanthropist, as a gift for his wife Bernice Pauahi Bishop, an ali'i and descendant of the royal House of Kamehameha. In 1891, the lands were deeded to the Bishop Estate Trustees and from 1921-1961 the County of Hawai'i leased the Bishop Estate-owned lands for a County Park. In 1961, the area was acquired by the National Park Service which began efforts to preserve the site and restore Pu'uhonua o Honaunau's historic structures.

Plan your visit

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located in Honaunau, HI off of Highway 160 and Honaunau Beach Rd. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The park is open year round from 7:00am to 15 minutes after Sunset and the Visitor Center is open from 8:00am to 4:30pm daily. There is an admission fee. Beach wheelchairs are provided at the Visitor Center and are free of charge. Cultural demonstrations are offered at various times throughout the park. For more information, visit the National Park Service Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park website or call 808-328-2326.

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park is featured in the National Park Service Discover Our Shared Heritage Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures Travel Itinerary.

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