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punaluu sacred sites

Punalu`u and adjacent areas provide evidence of the shifts in use of sacred space over time. Monumental architecture in the form of large heiau complexes (ritual centers) speak to the power of na ali`i (the Chiefs) and the social stratification of Ka`u’s ancient feudal society. With the advent of Missionaries arriving in the district as early as 1833, Christianity left its distinct architectural hallmark on the landscape of Ka`u. Sitting high on the ridge above Punalu`u is the Opukahaia Memorial Chapel and graveyard built on the birthplace of Henry Opukahala (1792-1818) who inspired the missionary movement that forever changed Hawai`i.

There are four pre-contact heiau within the immediate vicinity of Punalu`u.

  sacred stone path
To the south lies Ka`ie`ie. Thought to be a fishing shrine the heiau was built prominent bluff overlooking the ocean to the south, what were once the Ninole fishponds to the west and Koloa Bay to the east - home of the legendary na `ili`ili hanau (birthing stones) said to have supernatural ability to propagate. These smooth, water-polished stones were highly desired and were used for paving heiau, for arming slingshots and as game pieces for the Hawaiian game konane. The name Ka`ie`ie is thought to refer to a type of fishing trap or weir made of the fibrous `ie`ie vine. Considered, to be in good condition by early surveyors, several walls and a raised stone platform are all that remain of Ka`ie`ie today. Recent scholarship has interpreted the site as multi-functional. It likely served as a place of offerings and tributes, an observation point for monitoring the fishponds as well as a communications relay and dissemination location.

The heiau complexes of Lanipau and Imakakoloa have not faired as well. Heavily impacted by the construction of the Sea Mountain Resort golf course. Once the largest of the four, today what remains of Lanipau is in essence an “island” swallowed up by a sea of putting and driving greens while Imakakoloa has all but vanished, under the recent wave of development.

The heiau complex that sits overlooking the ocean and Punalu`u Beach is referred to by many names including, Halelau, Kane`ele`ele; Mailekini or Punalu`u Nui. This hieau, likely extended to the edge of the cliff at Punalu`u Bay. Its westernmost boundary was destroyed to make way for the construction of a wharf/warehouse complex for the sugar company in 1906. Identified as a heiau luakini (human sacrafice temple), a large table-like stone rests outside the southernmost wall and is known locally as Pohaku Mohai (sacrificial stone). Early site surveys noted possible kauhale (houses) adjacent to the heiau that were likely the residences of na kahuna (religious specialists).

Another important cultural feature is ala kahakai (trail by the sea) that served as an important link between ritual centers and coastal communities. A path with divine origins, the ala kahakai was thought to be the original route taken by the God Lono from North Kohala to the southernmost tip of the island and then windward along the Ka`u coast to Puna. This trail once paved with the `ili`ili hanau, (birthing stones) was designated as a National Historic Trail by President Clinton in 2000 and remnants can be found at both Punalu`u Nui and Ka`ie`ie heiau.

Ki‘i pohaku (petroglyphs) can be found near the County Park Pavillions within a protected area surrounded by a rock wall just past the parking area. It is easy to miss these “unmarked” ancient carvings.

Please kokua: While visiting Hawaiian wahi pana or sacred spaces please keep in mind that many wahi pana are still being used today by native Hawaiians. Treat them with the reverence due any sacred site – modern or ancient.

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