Uhauhumu Pōhaku
Ka pōhaku kihi paʻa.
The solid cornerstone.
A reliable, dependable person.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1540

Ever tried using stones to build a small figure or wall? How long did it remain standing? Building with natural materials is harder than it looks. Ka poʻe kahiko, the people of old, became masters of uhauhumu pōhaku, or dry-stack stone masonry. Using only stone, strength, intelligence, and gravity, they created elaborate structures, some of which are still standing today.

[Puʻukoholā heiau] Photo by Ruben Carillo. © Kamehameha Schools.

Uhauhumu pōhaku

[Traditional Hawaiian structure with pōhaku foundation] Photo by Ruben Carillo. © Kamehameha Schools.Compared with continental landmasses, the Hawaiian Islands are young. Hawaiʻi has no metals and very little clay for making tools and structures. In Hawaiʻi, the hardest natural resource available to Kānaka ʻŌiwi (Hawaiians) is pōhaku, or stone. According to traditional Hawaiian thought, pōhaku are living things with mana (life force), not inanimate objects. Pōhaku were used to build structures and to make the tools necessary for Kānaka ʻŌiwi to thrive.

Stones provided a solid foundation for many structures in Hawaiʻi, such as large terraces, walls, and platforms. Loʻi, or wetland taro patches, also made use of pōhaku, as did the ʻauwai, or irrigation ditches that provided water for the loʻi.

[ʻAuwai made with pōhaku] Photo by Ruben Carillo. © Kamehameha Schools.Kānaka ʻŌiwi also worshipped special stones as akua (gods). Some stones were carved, and others were left in their natural form. There were special classes of kāhuna (experts) who specialized in pōhaku. Some religious structures were over 40 feet high, 120 feet long, and incorporated thousands of tons of stone.

In some cases, the pōhaku for a structure were carried or passed from hand to hand in lines that stretched for miles. Many famous structures, like Puʻukoholā heiau in Kohala, Hawaiʻi, took several years to complete. The term for this kind of rock construction is uhauhumu pōhaku (traditional Hawaiian dry-stack stone masonry).

ʻO ke kahua ma mua, ma hope ke kūkulu.
The site first, and then the building.
Learn all you can, then practice.
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #2459)

 

Today there are wahi pana (storied places) built of stacked stone that are more than a thousand years old. No cement, mortar, or additional reinforcements were used. Many of these wahi pana have remained standing through earthquakes, tidal waves, and even hurricanes. The reason for the durability of these structures is the Kanaka ʻŌiwi engineering technique of uhauhumu pōhaku.

[Interlocking pōhaku] Photo by Ruben Carillo. © Kamehameha Schools.The first step of uhauhumu pōhaku is to identify an appropriate site for construction. Traditionally, this was decided by the kahuna kuhikuhipuʻuone. Many factors were considered—the gradient of the ground, the surrounding structures and resources, the position of the structure, and the mana of the place. Historical events, famous people, and natural phenomena helped to determine the site's mana. Once a site was chosen and the structure was designed, the paepae, or foundation, was built.

The paepae is started by placing large anchor stones called niho (teeth) in strategic places. The niho help to secure the rest of the stones as they are carefully fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Each stone is placed at a slight angle facing inward. After the larger stones are positioned, smaller stones are added to backfill the spaces around the interlocking pōhaku. This method is the key to the engineering technique of uhauhumu pōhaku. Any disturbance moves the stones inward, making a tighter fit and a stronger structure.


Many of the stones on Puʻukoholā Heiau are believed to have come from Pololū Valley. It is believed that Kamehameha and his men formed a human chain nearly twenty miles long and passed the stones from person to person all the way to the temple site.


Uhauhumu pōhaku today

Ko luna pōhaku nō ke kaʻa i lalo, ʻaʻole hiki i ko lalo pōhaku ke kaʻa.
A stone that is high up can roll down, but a stone that is down cannot roll up.
When a chief is overthrown his followers move on, but the people who have lived on the land from the days of their ancestors continue to live on it.
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1833)

 

            Paʻa ia paepae,
            pae pōhaku paʻa,
            maiau kūpono,
            kū paʻa kiʻekiʻe ā!

            The foundation is set,
            A foundation of strong stone,
            Expertly built and true,
            Standing tall and firm!

 

Over the years, particularly since the arrival of Westerners in Hawaiʻi, many famous wahi pana that utilized uhauhumu pōhaku have been destroyed. Sometimes stones were taken from wahi pana for other uses, like making walls for ranches. Or sometimes the entire structure was leveled to make way for new development.

[Rebuilding the profession of uhauhumu pōhaku] Photo by Ruben Carillo. © Kamehameha Schools.Fortunately, certain sites have been preserved by various communities. Today, more and more communities are not just preserving wahi pana but are also restoring them. This practice has helped bring back the art of uhauhumu pōhaku.

Many heiau (places of worship) and agricultural systems are being restored so they can be utilized for cultural and educational purposes, not just for their aesthetic or archeological value. Uhauhumu pōhaku is also being used to build entirely new structures to meet the needs of different communities.

Uhauhumu pōhaku has also been used to make political statements. In 2006, during a protest against genetically modified kalo (taro), an ahu, or shrine, was built on the front lawn of the university president’s office at the University of Hawaiʻi–Mānoa. The purpose of the ahu was to oppose the genetic modification of kalo and to emphasize the genealogical connection between Kanaka ʻŌiwi and Hāloa, the first kalo plant.

Uhauhumu pōhaku works with the contours of the land and uses natural materials. Like many Hawaiian practices, it is sustainable and causes minimal impacts to the natural environment. Uhauhumu pōhaku reflects the wisdom and ingenuity of our ancestors. It also demonstrates how Kānaka ʻŌiwi view the land and our relationship to it. The continuation of uhauhumu pōhaku is therefore important to maintaining a Hawaiian sense of place.

[Hāpaialiʻi heiau] Photo by Ruben Carillo. © Kamehameha Schools.Learn more about uhauhumu pōhaku in the following video.

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