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

Ever tried building a sand castle? How long did it stand before it was washed away by the waves? Building with natural materials is not as easy as you think. Ka poʻe kahiko, the people of old, became masters of uhauhumu pōhaku, or dry-stack stone masonry. They created elaborate structures, some of which are still standing today, with only stone, their own strength and intelligence, and gravity.

Uhauhumu Pōhaku

The Hawaiian Islands are young compared to continental landmasses. The islands have no metals and very little clay to be used for tools and structures. The hardest natural resource available to kānaka ʻōiwi (Hawaiians) is pōhaku, or stone. Kānaka ʻōiwi believed that pōhaku were living things with mana (life force), not inanimate objects. Kānaka ʻōiwi used pōhaku to build structures and to make all the tools necessary for them to thrive.

Stones provided a solid foundation for all the structures in Hawaiʻi. Large terraces, walls, and platforms were built using stone. Loʻi, or wetland taro patches, also made use of pōhaku as did the ʻauwai, or irrigation ditches, that fed them.

Kānaka ʻōiwi also worshipped special stones as akua (gods). Some stones were carved but others were left in their natural form. There were special classes of kāhuna 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 called 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 one 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.

The first step of uhauhumu pōhaku is to identify an appropriate site for construction. This was decided by the kahuna kuhikuhipuʻuone. This kahuna would consider many factors in making his decision—the gradient of the ground, the surrounding structures and resources, the position of the structure, even the mana of the place. Historical events, famous people, and natural phenomena helped to determine the mana of a place. Once a site was chosen and the structure was designed, the paepae, or foundation, was built.

The paepae was started by first placing large anchor stones called niho (teeth) in strategic places. The niho helped to secure the rest of the stones as they were carefully fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Each stone was placed at a slight angle facing inward. After the larger stones were positioned, smaller stones were 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 into the structure, making the fit tighter and strengthening the site.


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 highlight the skill of 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. Fortunately, some communities have preserved certain sites. 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 to wider use.

Many heiau (place 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. In addition to these restoration efforts, uhauhumu pōhaku is 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 kanaka ʻōiwi’s genealogical connection to Hāloa, the first kalo plant.

Uhauhumu pōhaku works with the contours of the land and uses all-natural materials. Like many Hawaiian practices, it is sustainable and causes minimal impacts to the natural environment. The wisdom and ingenuity of our ancestors can clearly be seen in uhauhumu pōhaku. It also demonstrates how kānaka ʻōiwi viewed the land and their relationship to it. All of these things mean that the continuation of uhauhumu pōhaku is important to maintaining a unique Hawaiian sense of place.

Learn more about uhauhumu pōhaku in the following video.

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