HILO, Hawaii — The Puuloa Petroglyph Field in Hawaii's Ka'u Desert is one of Earth's quietest places. The enigmatic carvings, chipped hundreds of years ago into the undulating black lava fields of Kilauea volcano, wait in silence and secrecy as the fragile records of the old Polynesians, ancestors of today's Hawaiians.
On our last visit Kilauea was erupting. Police and firefighters blocked the Kalapana Highway less than 10 miles away, anticipating the lava's swift flow to the sea. A mile away, the Pacific pounded other lava flows that form the Puna Coast.
At the petroglyphs the sun filtered through the smoke from burning ohia trees but the only sounds were the constant wind and the rustle of our footsteps in the dry grass.
Glyphs on All Islands
Petroglyphs appear on all the Hawaiian Islands except Kahoolawe. Tiny Lanai, the smallest island open to visitors, has more than any other except the Big Island.
The Puuloa Field in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the most concentrated area of petroglyphs in the Islands, and probably in the world.
Less than a mile's walk from Chain of Craters Road, the 15,000 petroglyphs are on an ancient domed flow of Kilauea. Scientists believe they have discovered the secret of at least some of them. Puuloa (Hill of Long Life) has always been a magic place with a special spirit, or mana .
For centuries, Hawaiians came from all the islands to deposit the navel stumps, or pikos , of their newborn children. The pikos were deposited in circular holes, carved for that purpose, and left overnight to ensure long life.
Our family of three followed the ancient Ka'u trail through the desert in the footsteps of ali'i (noblemen) and commoners traveling from Puna District. In old Hawaii, travelers were forbidden to hunt or fish in districts not their own, and had to stay on marked trails to avoid kapus , the taboos of violating local customs.
Like some other old taboos, this one still makes sense. There's no shade or water, and the path over dry grass and rugged lava beds is marked only by ahus , or mounds of stone.
We've never encountered other visitors at petroglyph sites, and on our latest pilgrimage to Puuloa the only sign of humanity was a distant helicopter, too far away to be heard, photographing the hot lava snaking toward the Pacific Ocean.
The ground is paved with carvings. Concentric circles and dots, the piko holes, dominate, but there are also glyphs of women giving birth, family groups, muscled dancers with gourd rattles (probably carved later than the simple linear figures), lizards and mysterious symbols.
According to historians, most of Puuloa's glyphs were carved before 1820 when the piko tradition died out. They were chipped into the surface of pahoehoe lava that cooled quickly; the glazed surface provides contrast to the lava's interior, which is a slightly different color.
Everywhere on the carvings lies "Pele's hair," the geologic term for the needlelike golden glass formed when a volcano explodes violently. The golden needles, ranging from tiny splinters to three inches, glint eerily in the sunlight, reminding us that the capricious volcano goddess may any day send new lava cascading over the precious carvings in her rush to the sea.
In 1987 Pele swallowed dozens of houses, forests, an ancient temple and the Queen's Bath, a historic spring-fed swimming hole. But for now, she spared the petroglyphs.
As impressive in a different way is the Puako field on the other side of the island, 31 miles north of Kailua-Kona on Route 19.
Like Puuloa, Puako's carvings reflect concern with birth and families, and they may be the oldest petroglyphs in the Islands.
Puako (sugar cane blossom) carvings, in contrast to the barren black lava of Puuloa, are on red lava in a steamy kiawe forest. The walk to the 3,000 carvings takes about 20 minutes, but we stayed for hours puzzling out a chain of 29 men, 30 feet long, brandishing paddles. There are records here, possibly recording voyages and migrations, but we haven't learned to read them.
The Big Island's third major site, with several thousand petroglyphs, is the Anaehoomalu Field south of Puako near the Royal Waikoloa Hotel.
The drive from Kailua-Kona through black lava fields is one of the island's most scenic. Four volcanoes are visible at once--Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Hualalai (dormant since 1801) and Haleakala on neighboring Maui.
The most accessible part of this big site, commonly called the Waikoloa Field, is near the hotel. Through glyphs of human figures, circles and cryptic symbols winds an ancient footpath, darkened and polished by thousands of bare and sandaled feet.