Mānoa Heritage Center



How old is Kūkaʻōʻō?

The age of Kūkaʻōʻō Heiau is uncertain. At this point, we do not really know how old the heiau is, but we do know that when Hawaiian oral tradition attributes a site to the Menehune it usually indicates antiquity.

As stated above, one of the criteria for assuming that Kūka‘ō‘ō Heiau was an agricultural heiau is based on its name, size and location.  Hawaiian names often provide clues to understanding place. The following are several translations:

1. Kūkaʻōʻō:  This name refers to Kū as the god of the digging stick (Pukui and Elbert).

2. Kukaoʻo: The appearance of the mature fruit. Ku (to appear) ka oʻo  (the mature fruit) (Napoka).

3. Kukaoo: This is a farmer’s god named by Hawaiian historian David Malo.

4. Kūkaʻōʻō: The upright or standing straight up (ku) digging stick (ka ʻōʻō).  Kupuna Maka Woolsey told of the Hawaiian hero, Kawelo, hurling his digging stick like a spear. The place it landed is now named for this event.

It can be easily noted that heiau often occupy a prominent place in a landscape. They are often placed on hilltops or on sites with commanding views of the surrounding land areas.  This higher ground site choice may have to do with the idea of physical elevation being tied to sanctity. One analysis of heiau sites on Oʻahu suggests that heiau are often located between fertile plains and upland areas. The impulse to build heiau on hilltops strongly influences the design of a heiau. The natural rise of the hill is often incorporated into the design, and as we see with the base of Kūkaʻōʻō Heiau the natural bedrock is covered over with a masonry veneer so that the heiau appears to be rising out of the hill rather than just “sitting on top” of it. Beneath heiau there are sometimes said to be caves or lava tubes. According to oral tradition, Kūkaʻōʻō Heiau is built atop a cave.

Much of what we know about the choice of location for heiau is based on historical sources about luakini heiau. Very little is known about the building and use of smaller heiau such as Kūkaʻōʻō Heiau. Hawaiian historian Kamakau suggests that luakini heiau were often constructed on “a site of old.” Chiefs often rebuilt or renovated ancient temple sites and tradition often credits these chiefs with heiau construction, forgetting that there may have been previous builders. Other criteria for heiau placement can be the relative proximity to the domain of particular activities and therefore gods.  Fishing shrines are usually found near the sea. Heiau constructed for the purpose of success in battle may be near a battlefield. Luakini are often situated near the aliʻi nui’s primary residence in a political district. The building of a luakini heiau often involved a kahuna kuikuhipuʻuone who advised the chief and designed the heiau. These kahuna were said to be “acquainted with the heiau which had been built from the most ancient times,” and that they “knew all about these old temples, because they had studied them on the ground, had seen their sites and knew the plans of them.”

Rocks of different varieties and sizes were used in the construction of heiau, rough lava rocks, basalt rocks, and water-worn rocks were all collected. Rocks were not modified in any way and were dry-laid without mortar. It is interesting that the unusual use of hewn rock in heiau is often found in temples attributed to the Menehune (Pohaku Hanalei Heiau, Kaʻu; Hiʻiaka Heiau, Kona–stones used to build the church in Kailua; Kukiʻi Heiau, Puna). However, Kukuipahu Heiau in Kohala is also built with dressed stones but is not thought to be of Menehune origin. Boulders, cobbles, stones, pebbles, and gravel were all used in construction. Most rocks came from nearby sources, but oral tradition suggests that some heiau were constructed with rocks that came from faraway sources. It is not known where the original rocks came from that built Kūkaʻōʻō Heiau, but during the restoration process, only rocks that were already on the heiau site were used.  

Heiau blessing after restoration by Nathan Napoka, 1994.

Prior to the restoration, an archaeological survey was conducted. The restoration process first began with clearing the site. This was a hard and delicate procedure as several large trees had to be cleared while causing as little damage to the heiau remains as possible. The heiau was carefully restored using the physical evidence of its layout found on the site and the drawings from the field survey of heiau done by Macallister in the ’30s. The restoration began and ended with traditional Hawaiian prayers and offerings. Nathan Napoka, the Hawaiian Cultural Specialist for the Office of Historic Preservation for the State of Hawaii served as the primary advisor for the restoration.

The question of whether the heiau had undergone earlier restoration is probably unanswerable at this point. The Project Manager, stonemason Billy Fields, stated that he found no evidence of prior restorations. The abolition of the kapu and the disintegration of Hawaiian religious practices began in 1819. While this heiau may possibly have been used for rituals after 1819, it seems unlikely that it would have undergone any major restoration after that year. Billy Fields did state that he found the north wall of the heiau to be made up of three adjacent walls. Perhaps early in its history, different builders at different times had a hand in the creation of this portion of the heiau.