Radiocarbon testing challenges understanding of ancient Hawaiian architecture

Aug 01, 2006
Radiocarbon testing challenges understanding of ancient Hawaiian architecture
An aerial view of a large war temple (Loaloa) on Maui. Courtesy Michael Kolb and Northern Illinois University

The development of monumental architecture and social complexity on the Hawaiian island of Maui occurred over a span of at least 500 years, according to the most detailed study to date on the antiquity of the island's extensive temple system. The findings, in the August issue of Current Anthropology, challenge previous conceptions of ancient Hawaiian civilization by identifying cycles of temple construction that coincide with politically charged periods of warfare and island consolidation.

"Because the islands are relatively isolated from the rest of the world, the development of monumental architecture and complex society in Hawaii is of keen interest to archaeologists," writes Michael Kolb (Northern Illinois University), who spent more than a decade locating and excavating temple sites. "In many ways, Maui represents an excellent test case for state development. Its monumental architecture is directly linked to economic, political, and ritual development, not unlike the most famous early civilizations, such as the Maya or ancient Eqyptians."

Kolb conducted radiocarbon-dating analyses on samples from forty ruins on the island of Maui, including several newly discovered temples. The radiocarbon dates indicate the earliest temples were built in the 13th century, with construction continuing into the early 19th century. Prior research had indicated that Maui's temples, known as heiau, were built within a span of decades near the turn of the 17th century.

Kolb's study also identifies an important shift in temple construction from open-air temples used for ancestral worship to enclosed, more elaborate temples used for sacrificial offerings to war gods. Large temples often covered more area than a football field and stood 40 feet in height.

"The Hawaiian civilization lacked ceramics, which is typically why radiocarbon dating is relied upon by scientists," says Kolb. "Before a temple was built, the land would be set ablaze to clear it from vegetation, leaving behind charcoal remains. We also were able to gather samples for dating from the sites of ancient ovens and bonfires."

The ancient people of Maui stacked lava rocks to form the foundation of the platform temples, often built on the faces of cliffs or other high points on the island. The more elaborate, terraced temples were adorned with altars, oracle towers, offering pits, and god or ancestral images carved from wood or stone.

"Oftentimes, in a show of economic might, a conquering chief would remodel, build additions to, and rededicate a rival's temples," explains Kolb. "Many of the early structures were modified or new ones were built with enclosures on top. Access was limited to reward loyal constituents, and sacrificial worship became more of a focus."

Source: University of Chicago

Explore further: Ancient shark fossil reveals new insights into jaw evolution

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

11 ancient burial boxes recovered in Israel (Update)

Mar 31, 2014

Israeli authorities on Monday unveiled 11 ancient burial boxes dating to around the time of Jesus, recovered by police during a midnight raid on antiquities dealers suspected of stealing the artifacts.

Egypt: Missing pieces of ancient statues found

Feb 16, 2014

The Egyptian minister of antiquities announces that a team of German archaeologists has discovered missing pieces belonging to the famed Colossi of Memnon. The statues, dating to roughly 1350 BC, were damaged in an earthquake ...

Sucker-footed fossils broaden the bat map

Feb 04, 2014

Today, Madagascar sucker-footed bats live nowhere outside their island home, but new research shows that hasn't always been the case. The discovery of two extinct relatives in northern Egypt suggests the ...

Israel seeks to save ancient sites from earthquake

Jan 21, 2014

With Israel situated in one of the world's earthquake-prone areas, officials are taking action to protect the Holy Land's most important ancient treasures so they don't come tumbling down.

Recommended for you

Clippers and coiners in 16th-century England

Apr 14, 2014

In 2017 a new £1 coin will appear in our pockets with a design extremely difficult to forge. In the mid-16th century, Elizabeth I's government came up with a series of measures to deter "divers evil persons" ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Down's chromosome cause genome-wide disruption

The extra copy of Chromosome 21 that causes Down's syndrome throws a spanner into the workings of all the other chromosomes as well, said a study published Wednesday that surprised its authors.

Researchers see hospitalization records as additional tool

Comparing hospitalization records with data reported to local boards of health presents a more accurate way to monitor how well communities track disease outbreaks, according to a paper published April 16 in the journal PLOS ON ...

Ebola virus in Africa outbreak is a new strain

The Ebola virus that has killed scores of people in Guinea this year is a new strain—evidence that the disease did not spread there from outbreaks in some other African nations, scientists report.