An Ancient Quarry on a Mountain Desert (Mauna Kea, Hawaii or the Big Island)

Imagine ascending a dormant monster, a volcano whose summit reaches beyond the clouds. You are on foot, weighed down by life sustaining necessities such as fuel, water, and food. Your home base has already disappeared in the distance, and you have much farther to go. The air is thin and as dry as an old biscuit, because oxygen is scarcer as you ascend, and due to the accelerated evaporation in high altitude, dehydration sets in. You will be camping at this height for some time; you must acclimate.

View from adze quarry, Mauna Kea

View from adze quarry, Mauna Kea

You climbed above the treeline some time ago, and now the world has turned into a cold desert. Vegetation has given way to a harsher environment, beautiful, earthy, remote. From hundreds of thousands of years of eruptions, accumulations of lava have created cinder cones of various sizes and colors: browns, reds, blacks. The sand is not sand, it is ash, scattered over the slopes and summit. But you and your fellow travelers will not be scaling the summit, you will be stopping at one of the natural basalt quarries to extract the stone that will permit you to make a most important tool, the adze.

Requiring considerable stamina, this is not an activity many would attempt today, and yet Native Hawaiians scaled this volcano for hundreds of years before European colonization. But Mauna Kea was not just any volcano, as the highest mountain on the island at 13,796 feet, it was a particularly sacred place. In the Hawaiian tongue, Mauna Kea means white mountain, which refers to its snow-capped summit in the winter months. The mountain is also known as Mauna o Wākea or Mountain of the deity Wākea.

Basalt flakes next to natural rock. Mauna Kea

Basalt flakes next to natural rock. Mauna Kea

On the volcano’s south flank, at an elevation of around 12,000 feet, Hawaiians quarried and flaked large pieces of basaltic rock. This was the first step in the complex art of manufacturing ground and polished adzes, which would in their final form be attached to wooden handles and used, among other things, to make canoes.

Today, these quarries are considered important archaeologically and culturally, and continue to be sacred for Native Hawaiians. They are visually arresting sites and worth visiting if you can find someone to guide you there. The blue-grey stones impacted by extraction and flaking can be found in huge piles, contrasting sharply with the reddish shades of the surrounding rocks. Many pieces left behind are tiny flakes, but over time their accumulation has created mounds reaching occasionally three meters in height. Other flaked stones are too large for one person to lift and show scars where smaller pieces of stone were removed by striking the hard surface.

Basalt flakes

Basalt flakes, Mauna Kea

The whole archaeological complex includes not only the remnants of lithic production, but shrines, trails, rock shelters, and petroglyphs. This is a case where close observation can be greatly rewarded, as what may at first glance appear to be nothing more than haphazard rock formations are in truth the remains of centuries of human activity reshaping a barren landscape. Sitting on these ancient stones, this ancient mountain deity, where many before you sat, you can gaze out over both land and sky. Stone never felt so alive.

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