Thousands of miles away from their home in Texas, two Americans are watching the sun set on a Hawaiian beach. But as the light slowly disappears below the horizon, a beam catches something strange on a nearby rock – and it illuminates a secret that has remained hidden for hundreds of years.
Today, the Hawaiian archipelago is part of the United States, with almost one million people currently living in the Honolulu metropolitan area alone. However, Hawaii’s history is somewhat different to that of mainland America, which sits some 2,400 miles away. For starters, the first island settlers are thought to have arrived centuries before colonial America was established, with the new inhabitants likely coming from the Marquesas Islands in around 300 AD.
Then, over the years, explorers from other Polynesian islands arrived in what is now Hawaii and settled across the scattered island chain. By the time that the Europeans arrived on Hawaii in the 18th century, then, a complex society with a rich culture had already been established for a considerable period of time.
Meanwhile, on Oahu, the third biggest of the 137 isles that make up the state of Hawaii, the first evidence of habitation dates to around 200 AD. And today the island is known mostly as the home of the state capital as well as being a popular tourist destination. However, life on Oahu was once very different, with a recent discovery shedding some light on the region’s distant past.
In July 2016 two Americans from Fort Worth, TX, were visiting the area of Waianae on Oahu’s western coast. Apparently, Mark Louviere and Lonnie Watson had spent time in the state on a number of previous occasions. Yet even so, they could never have guessed what they were about to discover.
As they had several times before, Louviere and Watson settled down to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. But as they gazed out to sea, their eyes were caught by something strange. You see, the pair were looking at what seemed to be an ancient petroglyph carved into the rocks that line the coast.
As Watson explained in a 2016 statement, “For some reason there was a beam of light… just a beam… It landed right on one of [the petroglyphs], and for some reason I just turned my head. I said, ‘Look!’ It was just a stroke of luck.” And, amazingly, this wasn’t all that the pair had spotted.
Indeed, when the twosome decided to take a closer look at the carvings, they found no fewer than ten separate petroglyphs scattered along a distance of some 60 feet. Etched in the shape of human figures, the carvings were each as long as five feet. And so, stunned by their discovery, the two tourists alerted the authorities to their incredible find.
Soon, then, the State Historic Preservation Division arrived to investigate. And by working alongside the U.S. Army, the department was subsequently able to locate a minimum of 17 petroglyphs on the beach. What that meant is that even though experts think the relics may have been spotted before, this is the first time they have been officially recorded.
U.S. Army archaeologist and native of Waianae Alton Exzabe certainly believes that the carvings are an important discovery. “What’s interesting is the Army in Hawaii manages several thousand archaeological sites, but this is the first one with petroglyphs directly on the shoreline,” he explained in a 2016 statement.
Exzabe used to visit the very same beach as a child; in 2016, though, he became one of the first experts to arrive on the scene and officially document the discovery. “Some people have said they’ve seen [the petroglyphs] before,” he added, “but this is quite a significant find.”
Exzabe and his colleagues have also estimated that the petroglyphs could be four centuries old. And if this is the case, it would mean that their creation occurred at least 150 years before British explorer Captain James Cook arrived on the island. Hence, the figures may give a fascinating insight into Hawaiian culture prior to European colonization.
Meanwhile, Glen Kila – a descendant of some of the first people to settle in the area – believes that the discovery has great significance for the region’s aboriginal inhabitants. And although he claims to have been unaware of the petroglyphs’ existence before the Texans’ find, he has been quick to point out the role that local knowledge has to play in interpreting the symbols.
“[The petroglyphs] record our genealogy and religion,” Kila explained. “It’s very important to know about the lineal descendants of the area and their understanding of these petroglyphs. The interpretation of these petroglyphs can only be [done] by [those] who are familiar with [Hawaii’s] history and culture.”
As it turns out, though, these petroglyphs aren’t the first to have been discovered in Hawaii. In fact, some 200 miles away on Hawaii Island, there are a number of sites where similar carvings have been spotted – such as the Puak? Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve. This location is home to a whopping 3,000 such images, including representations of families, animals and gods.
And at the Waikoloa Petroglyph Field, further carvings can be seen – including one depicting a horse and warrior that’s believed to date from after the Europeans arrived. That said, it’s thought the petroglyphs discovered on the Waianae coast possess some particularly intriguing characteristics.
“The ones with the fingers, for me, are pretty unique,” Exzabe explained. “I believe there are some elsewhere with fingers, but fingers and hands are pretty distinct – as well as the size of them. [And while] we find a lot of petroglyphs that are a foot or so tall, this one measures four to five feet. It’s pretty impressive.”
Meanwhile, within days of the discovery in Waianae, a crowd had gathered to watch as the petroglyphs disappeared beneath the sand once more. But Exzabe and his colleagues have urged observers not to give into temptation and interfere with the figures. Apparently, just touching the carvings could cause irreversible damage.
Instead, the SHPD plans to work with the Army to protect the petroglyphs for future generations to enjoy. In the interim, though, the sand of the Waianae coast has settled over the ancient artworks once more, concealing them from prying eyes. And as it stands, no one knows when they may reemerge.
“We’re eager to join the Army in developing a protection and preservation plan for these petroglyphs,” SHDP administrator Dr. Alan Downer has explained. “They are an important part of Hawaii’s culture, and while sands have covered them again, in time they will reappear. We want to make sure people know that they are fragile and should only be viewed – not touched.”