Cape Kumukahi, in the southeastern corner of the Big Island of Hawai'i, forms the bleak, easternmost extremity of the Hawaiian island chain. Lava flows have pushed across this flat plain over the centuries, most recently in 1960, when the molten rock stopped just short of the lighthouse at the end of the road out across the cape—something regarded by many as a conciliatory gesture by the volcano goddess Pele. East of the lighthouse, close to the coast, is a rugged landscape formed of large irregular chunks of black lava.

This is an unlikely setting for astronomical observations, yet it is one of the very few places mentioned explicitly in this regard in Hawaiian oral history. Two traditions have come down to us. The first, recorded by the ethnographer Nathaniel Emerson in 1909 as a footnote in a book about sacred songs of the hula, refers to a "pillar of stone," itself called Ku-

mukahi, and a "monolith," to the south of it, called Makahoni. According to Emerson:

In summer the sun in its northern excursion inclined, as the Hawaiians noted, to the side of Kumukahi, while in the season of cool weather, called Makalii, it swung in the opposite direction and passed over to Makahoni. The people of Puna accordingly said, "The sun has passed over to Makahoni," or "The sun has passed over to Kumukahi," as the case might be. (Emerson 1997 [1909], p.197)

Ethnographer Martha Beckwith recorded a slightly different legend. By this account, a red stone at the extreme end of the cape represents the god Ku-mukahi, a god with healing powers who can take the form of a plover. Two further stones represent his wives, who "manipulate the seasons by pushing the sun back and forth between them at the two solstices" (Beckwith 1970 [1940], p.119).

The observations described in the myths are hardly of great sophistication. The significance of this example is that the Kumukahi pillars constitute one of very few calendrical markers whose location is identified in Polynesian oral traditions with absolute certainty. Without these legends, this barren corner of the Hawaiian islands would surely be one of the last places a modern archaeoastronomer might think to look for evidence of ancient astronomical observations. The visible landscape is formed entirely in relatively modern times, a substantial part of it within living memory; such landmarks as there are were formed by natural processes rather than human intervention. The stones and pillars of which the legends speak are not easy to single out from among the many natural lava pillars in the area, if indeed they are still standing. Even with the help of the legends, the exact nature of the observations, and hence of the alignments that may still exist, is not entirely clear. Nonetheless, a combination of archaeology and archaeoastronomy may yet manage to identify the Kumukahi pillars with a fair degree of confidence.

One cannot visit Kumukahi without wondering what the ancient Hawaiians could possibly have been doing in such a desolate spot. Yet this was undoubtedly a sacred place, featuring in a number of different songs and chants. We do not need to postulate the existence of more precise astronomical alignments in order to explain its sacred significance; we probably need look no further than the fact that it was an extremity, beyond which the boundless ocean extended away in the direction of the rising sun. In this sense, it may have something in common with remote Necker Island, at the opposite end of the chain.

See also:

Solstitial Directions.

Hawaiian Calendar; Necker Island; Polynesian Temple Platforms and Enclosures.


References and further reading

Beckwith, Martha W. Hawaiian Mythology (repr.), 119. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1970. Originally published in 1940 by Yale University Press, New Haven.

Emerson, Nathaniel B. Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula. Honolulu: 'Ai Pohaku Press, 1997. Originally published in 1909 by Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Hale'ole, S. N. Ka Mo'olelo o La'ieikawai: The Hawaiian Romance of

La'ieikawai, trans. by Martha W. Beckwith, 627. Honolulu: First People's Productions, 1997. First published in translation in 1919 by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

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