Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Hawai'i That Was: Living on Uncertain Ground - The First Human Wave Arrives

The southeast coast of the Big Island of Hawai'i is a barren blasted land. One can blame it on the lack of rain, but though it is arid, rainfall is plentiful enough to support forests nearby. One only needs to look up the Holei Pali to know right away what the problem is: it's ground zero for the basalt flows emanating from the Kilauea shield complex. These slopes have been covered repeatedly by eruptions, most recently from 1969-75, and during the ongoing eruption that began in 1983. As we will see, each eruption is a paradox of creation and destruction.
The pali, or cliff, belies the description of a shield volcano with gentle slopes. It turns out that the southeast slope of Kilauea is sliding slowly into the sea, and the cliffs are actually giant fault scarps. To most people, "faults" means earthquakes, and there have been some powerful events in this area, including a 7.9 magnitude quake in 1868, and a 7.2 magnitude tremor in 1975 that killed two people.
We were headed down Chain of Craters Road in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on the second day of our recent journey. The class, a hybrid course covering geology and anthropology, was having a first look at some of the archaeological sites on the Big Island, and as we looked around, it was hard to imagine living in this strange and ever-changing landscape. There is no development along the road, and yet, if you come across old maps, you will find a string of place names along the route: Kalapana Garden, Waha'ua Heiau, Royal Gardens, the Queen's Bath, the Black Sand Beach of Kaimu, and a national park visitor center. They are all gone now, buried in basalt lava flows. It's a tough land.
A section of the old Chain of Craters Road buried by lavas in the 1969-74 Mauna Ulu eruptions.
And yet, people have lived here, and for hundreds of years. Despite the lack of water and soil, despite a lack of coastal access, there are hundreds of archaeological sites that have not yet been buried beneath the advancing lava flows. The original Hawaiians were Polynesian voyagers, probably from the Marquesas Islands, 2,500 miles to the south (although legends speak of an earlier race of people, the Menehune). The timing of their arrival is debated, with estimates ranging from 1,700 to 800 years ago. Aside from rich fishing along the shorelines, there was little food for the colonizers, but they brought their own plants and animals to assure their survival: taro, breadfruit, banana, coconut, as well as pigs (pua'a) and chickens (moa), and unfortunately, rats. We checked out a small village site that was partially buried in the 1969-74 eruptions (below), and then headed to the Pu'u Loa Petroglyph Trail.
The arrival of humans on the islands heralded huge changes for the native plants and animals. For millions of years, the flora and fauna had evolved in isolation, and had few defenses to the effects of the grazing of pigs and the predation of rats. The first wave of human colonization resulted in extinctions or vast declines in the populations of native plants and animals, especially the birds.
What we know of the culture of the first Hawaiians comes from oral traditions, historical writings since European contact, and archaeological investigations of the older sites. More information comes from linguistic analysis of the Hawaiian dialect. To me, the amateur, the most fascinating hints of the past come from the intersection of humans with the rock: petroglyph art. The barren coastal plain at Pu'u Loa has the largest collection of petroglyphs on the island, with at least 23,000 individual carvings.
A relatively level trail crosses 0.75 miles of the basalt flows to the petroglyph site, where a boardwalk protects many of the carvings. Our ranger guide led us farther up the slopes to another field as well. The rock carvings carry a tremendous amount of religious and cultural significance, especially in a society that did not have written records (although oral histories are extensive). 
I try to imagine what a revelation the Big Island was to the first Hawaiians. The Polynesians may or may not have had a cultural memory of volcanism, but the Marquesas Islands were not one of the active chains where they would have seen volcanoes in action. What did they think of these blasted plains of lava in a place where plants should have been growing? What did they think as they witnessed their first eruptions, and perhaps the destruction of some of their villages? It must have been a profound and terrifying experience.
We reached the end of Chain of Craters Road and had a look at the Holei Sea Arch and the rugged coastline. This was not the stereotypical white sandy beach with surfers and high-rise hotels. It was a violent battleground between ocean waves and volcanic rock. The lava flows destroy human developments, but they also create new lands, providing a balance to the constant destruction brought about by by the raging sea.