A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Site Histories, Resource Descriptions, and Management Recommendations


A. Setting

Pu'uohonua o Hoaunau, "Place of Refuge of Honauhau," is located in the ahupua'a of Honauhau, in South Kona, on the west coast of the Island of Hawai'i. The present park includes the coastal portions of three ancient land divisions: Honaunau, Keokea, and Ki'ilae. It lies about midway between the larger towns of Kailua to the north and Miloli'i to the south. Located next to the ocean, the park is reached via a secondary road off the Mamalahoa Highway. It consists here of a large flat tongue of pahoehoe lava flanked by three bays, Honaunau to the north and Alahaka and Ki'ilae to the south. In the vicinity of Honaunau Bay, the park includes the refuge itself, nearby palace grounds, royal fishponds, a royal canoe landing area, stone house platforms, and temple structures. The boundaries of the refuge are formed by a wall starting at Honaunau Bay and extending in a southwesterly direction for more than 600 feet, at which point a leg turns to the west and runs again southwesterly about 400 feet toward the sea.

map of Pu'uhonua o Honaunau NHP
Illustration 141. Boundary map, Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, Hawai'i.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Here, as elsewhere along the Kona Coast, lava flows (these from Mauna Loa) are the dominating coastline feature. The refuge is situated on a tongue or small peninsula of black pahoehoe lava jutting into the ocean and forming the southwest wall of Honaunau (Ke Awa) Bay. Within the curve of the bay nestles the small village of Honaunau, once the home of chiefly retainers and commoners, now supporting only a small number of houses. From here one can see what is perhaps the most spectacular natural feature of the park — the Keanae'e pali (cliff), a fault scarp paralleling the shore about one-tenth of a mile inland. The imposing appearance of the cliff, which is arc shaped, more than 100 feet high, and 1,000 feet long, is due to the metallic-hued ancient lava flows frozen in time as they cascaded over the cliff edge toward the sea, creating "festoon lava." The early inhabitants used the numerous cave openings and lava tubes in the cliff face as residences, burial chambers, and possibly for refuge from the elements. [1]

From the ocean inland to the beach the area that used to be barren, dry, open, and dotted with scattered large lava boulders (deposited by tidal action or brought in for construction purposes) is now overgrown with koahaole and opiuma. The area historically supported stands of pill grass used for thatching houses, pandanus, kou, kamani, and noni, with cocoanut palms providing some shade around the refuge itself. About a mile inland, the scene changes to dense foliage as a result of the more abundant rainfall and the presence of decomposed lava. The early Hawaiians appreciated this area's fertility and their descendants continue to utilize it for growing large quantities of coffee, macadamia nuts, plumeria, avocados, papayas, and other tropical fruits.

North about four miles on the Kona Coast is Kealakekua Bay, the scene of the second significant contact between native Hawaiians and Europeans. It was there, at the site of the early Hawaiian villages of Napo'opo'o and Ka'awaloa, that Captain Cook's ships, the Resolution and Discovery, dropped anchor after discovering Kaua'i in 1778. There Cook was worshipped as the physical manifestation of the god Lono in the temple of Hikiau. And there he eventually lost his life during a sudden battle with the natives at the water's edge near Ka'awaloa. A monument on the north side of the bay marks his death site. Hikiau Heiau, restored in 1917, stands on the east side of the bay.

The area between Kealakekua and Honaunau bays is renowned as the Moku'ohai battleground, site of the 1782 conflict between the forces of Kamehameha and those of Kiwala'o for dominance over the island after the death of Kalani'opu'u, king of Hawai'i at the time of European contact. Kamehameha's troops succeeded in killing Kiwala'o and routing his warriors, although the latter's half-brother Keoua escaped to carry on the battle until his own death at the hands of Kamehameha's followers at Pu'ukohola Heiau.

Immediately south of the refuge, in Keokea, a satellite village of scattered residential sites, including that of King Keawe, hugged the coast in ancient times. Inland remains of this settlement consist of two heiau, a holua, and the burial cliffs mentioned earlier. A little farther south, within the present southern boundary of the park, is a portion of Ki'ilae Village, occupied from prehistoric times until 1926. There residences arose around a well, called Wai-ku'i-o-Kekela, named for Kekela, a resident of the area, daughter of John Young and mother of Queen Emma. Nearby are lava tube refuge caves useful in time of war. [2]

Today the refuge and associated residential and temple sites, walls, trails, and village remains are in ruins. Non-native shrubs and trees, vines, and a dense undergrowth of grass form a thick cover over the pahoehoe lava flow, which is periodically exterminated in an attempt to restore the landscape of the eighteenth century and expose significant archaeological features. Park facilities include a visitor center, parking lot, headquarters building, and a picnic area.

sounding chart of Kealakekua Bay to Honaunau Bay
Illustration 142. Portion of chart showing soundings, Kealakekua Bay to Honaunau Bay, Island of Hawaii, n.d. Note delination of pu'uhonua, royal compound, house lots, and various "ruins." Courtesy Hawaii State Library, Honolulu.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

map of Honaunau, South Kona
Illustration 143. Detail of "Honaunau (Section), South Kona, Hawaii." W.A. Wall, 1895-96. This shows some of the structures and the road system around the "City of Refuge."
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Map of Honaunau
Illustration 144. "Map of Honaunau, South Korea, Hawaii." W.A. Wall, 1906. This shows some of the kuleana and road systems in the area. Courtesy Kona Historical Society, Captain Cook, Hawai'i.

map of Honaunau map of Honaunau
map of Honaunau map of Honaunau
map of Honaunau
Illustration 145. Portions of "Honaunau, South Kona-Hawaii, Beach Section," G. Podmore, 1918-9. This shows kuleana around Honaunau Bay and the pu'uhonua. Courtesy Kona Historical Society, Captain Cook, Hawai'i.

map of prehistoric and historic sites along coast of Honaunau Bay
Illustration 146. Drawing showing significant prehistoric and historic sites along the coast of Honaunau Bay, 1919. Figure 14.1 in Stokes, "Features Pertaining to Early Hawaiian Life," p. 212.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001