Ancient Hawaiian culture at the Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Park

hawaiian checkers game konane
"Playing" konane

Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau found on the Big Island of Hawaii is the most well known of Hawaii’s ancient Places of Refuge andwas denoted a national historical park in 1961 due to its major cultural and historical significance to the island. It has recently employed the work and efforts of local artists who use traditional hawaiian tools to restore the park to its original glory of the 1700’s, consisting of 180 acres, the park is divided into two sections – the Palace Grounds and the Place of Refuge separated by the Great Wall.

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau.

After a quick stop at the Visitors’ Centre to pick up a park map, the tour begins at the Palace Grounds, which were where the hawaiian chief would live. In ancient times, the surrounding beach area was only reserved for royalty and any non-royal citizens who entered the area were immediately sentenced to death.. Several kiʻi’s (small wooden statues) around the park warned people to stay away.


Warning away commoners

Around the grounds you can see examples of canoes constructed with materials native to the land. They were carved from koa wood and bound by coconut fibres. Inside some huts you can see bowls carved into the stones, which were used to extract salt from seawater, and were found in reconstructed examples of Hawaiian kitchens.

Ancient hawaiian canoe
Reconstructed Hawaiian kitchen

Visitors to the grounds are able to have a look at an original gamestone that was used to play a Hawaiian game called konane. The game consists of rocks made out of white coral and black lava for the opposing players. It is played similar to the game of checkers, but the aim was not to be the person who takes all of their opponent’s pieces, but to be the one to make the final available move.

“Playing” konane

After leaving the Palace Grounds, the 1000 foot long Great Wall appears in sight. Constructed from lava rocks in 1550, the rocks were specifically chosen to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Its purpose is to separate the Palace Grounds from the Place of Refuge. In order to enter this Place of Refuge, you have to walk around the wall towards the beautiful Honaunau Bay.

It’s possible to visit a since reconstructed temple – the Hale o Keawe Heiau. The temple was first constructed in 1650 and contained the bones of 23 past hawaiian chiefs. Hawaiian’s believed that the bones of dead chiefs would give extra protection to their temples.

Marking the entrance of a temple

The most important law in ancient Hawaii was the rule that non-royal citizens were not allowed to get close to the chief, touch any of his possessions or walk in his footsteps. Even their shadows were not allowed to touch the royal Palace Grounds. When Hawaiians broke these strict  rules, the penalty was always to be sentenced to death. The criminals would be hunted by the normal citizens as they searched to find a Place of Refuge in time. If the offender was able to get there before being caught they could take part in a purification ceremony with the local priest and then be free to return to their normal life. However, this was not a place filled with hardened criminals. This was a sacred place where life began anew for the ancient Hawaiians who had sinned.

The Place of Refuge

It’s also possible to visit some of huge stones made famous by Mark Twain. In his “Letters from Hawaii”, Mark Twain wrote:

“On the other side of the temple is a monstrous seven-ton rock, eleven feet long, seven feet wide and three feet thick. It is raised a foot or a foot and a half above the ground, and rests upon half a dozen little stony pedestals. They say that fifty or sixty years ago (1806-1816) the proud Queen Kaʻahumanu (favorite wife of King Kahmehameha I) used to fly to this rock for safety, whenever she had been making trouble with her fierce husband, and hide under it until his wrath was appeased.”

Eventually, the Hawaiians abandoned their royal sanctuary, as explained by a sign at the Place of Refuge.

“In 1819 Kamehameha II defied the kapu and abolished that system of religion, and all the heiau and the puʻuhonua they protected ceased to function. The people were confused and uncertain about their future; and gone was the balance between life-loving people and the power and vengeance of gods who could take life away. Changes came quickly. People and ideas from outside this island world altered forever the old way of life.”



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  1. Drew
    June 13, 2011

    After reading all of your Hawaii posts I’m definitely tempted to take a trip there sometime in the future. Looks like paradise on Earth!

    And those statues are very intimidating, those commoners need to grow some balls :P

    • Lauren
      June 14, 2011

      You’ve gotta go! It’s one of my favourite places… So take me with you!

  2. Kris
    June 14, 2011

    How, that looks amazing. I’ll have to check it out next time!

    • Lauren
      June 14, 2011

      It was a great way to spend an afternoon!

  3. jill- Jack and JIll Travel
    June 15, 2011

    This brings back such good memories. I love the Big Island and I’d love to take Jack to visit it again someday. If I remember correctly, the snorkeling around the area was really nice too – did you get a chance to go?

    • Lauren
      June 15, 2011

      Yes! I was staying in Kona, where there were lots of opportunities to go – we got to see some sea turtles!

  4. Ellie
    January 22, 2012

    Your images and commentary show the Hawaiian culture to be a very rich and intriguing culture. Would have loved to have been there as you explored the park.

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