Kawela-Kīpū Connection 500 Years Ago

Community Contributed

By Marshall Weisler, Archaeologist

Stone adzes were vitally important to ancient Polynesians and every household had several sizes and shapes for a range of woodworking tasks. Not every rock is ideal for adze making so locations with fine-grained rock, known as quarries, were sought after from the earliest times. A small but important adze quarry is located three miles east of Kawela at Pu‘u Pāpa‘i. And rock from that quarry has an important story to tell.

First a little background. The Pu‘u Pāpa‘i quarry is unique in its “chemical signature” or its “rock DNA.” Rocks from different islands, and sometimes different volcanoes or even separate lava flows, can have a unique chemical composition. When stone tools are found in ancient living sites and their chemistry is determined, this often lets archaeologists know where the artifacts originated; that is the quarry. 

Last month, the Dispatch reported on one of the oldest archaeological sites in the Hawaiian Islands located at Kawela. We analyzed the chemical composition of two small broken stone artifacts from the oldest layer of that site, dating to about 800 years ago, and determined that they were from the Pu‘u Pāpa‘i quarry. And from another site at Kawela where wooden bowls were likely made for folks living within the ahupua‘a 300 to 400 years ago, we chemically analyzed another stone tool. And finally, from a habitation site at Kīpū, about 10 miles mauka in a straight line from Kawela, we analyzed the chemistry of a stone artifact that was found in an imu dated to 500 years ago. 

All these artifacts from these three archaeological sites were chemically identical to the Pu‘u Pāpa‘i adze quarry rock. 

Because the artifacts are from dated archaeological sites we know when the Pu‘u Pāpa‘i adze quarry was used—in this case from about 800 years ago until about the late 1700s. This quarry is now the oldest, continuously used adze quarry in the Hawaiian Islands and tells us that when Polynesians first arrived on the shores of Molokai, they were quick to locate important resources that they needed for survival. 

So what else does this study tell us? By identifying Pu‘u Pāpa‘i adze quarry rock in two sites at Kawela and one at Kīpū we can say that the people living at Kawela and Kīpū  may have been ‘ohana that were linked for many reasons, one of which was for the trade of upland (uka) and coastal (kai) resources. 

These resources may have included fish, salt, and limu from the coast that were exchanged for olona fiber and other mauka plant products. This mauka-makai transfer of resources is a well-documented pattern described by Mary Kawena Pukui and E. S. Craighill Handy from talking with kupuna living at Ka‘u, Hawaii Island in 1935. 

Our Molokai study suggests that a system of trade between distant mauka and makai communities as detailed by Pukui and Handy nearly 100 years ago may be many centuries older.  So, five small broken artifacts found in archaeological sites 300 to 800 years old had quite a story to tell us today. The details of this study were recently published in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology. 


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