Why you should care
Because facts and fables mix in this Hawaiian historic site.
A light breeze rustles your hair and the sugarcane stalks whisper all around you. Below your feet, bronzed and mossy rocks line a path broken only by ripped black plastic trash bags peeking through the soil where pineapples once grew. The road ahead leads to a storied place. Once a religious site that celebrated new life, especially that of its demigod rulers, in the end its dirt ran red with the blood of innocents, thanks to the heinous acts of a cannibal king.
This ancient space was first set aside by Hawaiian rulers on the eve of the 12th century. It was known to be the piko, or belly button, of the island of Oahu. Between the sweet potato and yam crops that once grew here, nearly 200 lava rocks were aligned, a row on the left, a row on the right. The flat area allowed pregnant women to see for miles upon miles, admiring clear and untouched skies as they went into labor, giving birth to ali’l (Hawaiian royalty) with their backs pressed against a particularly large stone called Kukaniloko.
The sacred drum Hawea was beaten to announce the birth of a new chief, a veritable god breathing among men.
The birthing mother was flanked by 36 chiefs, 18 on each side. “If any one came in confident trust and lay properly upon the supports, the child would be born with honor. It would be called a chief divine; a burning fire,” or so the legend went, according to All About Hawaii, a University of Michigan publication. But it wasn’t an easy maneuver — the chiefess must hold up her thighs in strict observance of the liloe kapu, the regulations for proper birthing.
Once the woman’s screams had faded and the child born, the royal pair were ushered into a temple, called a heiau, at Hoolonopahu, 300 yards south. With 48 holy men watching, the umbilical cord was cut, and the sacred drum Hawea was beaten to announce the birth of a new chief, a veritable god breathing among men.
The creation and consecration of Kukaniloko, “that peculiarly hallowed place in all subsequent ages of Hawaiian history,” began with Nanakaoko and his wife, Kahihiokalani, who had established the tradition for the birth of their son Kapawa, according to Swedish-born Hawaiian ethnologist Abraham Fornander in An Account of the Polynesian Race, published in 1878. Fabled rulers, such as Mailikukahi — credited with enacting innovative laws and education systems while ably defending Oahu from Maui invaders — and Kakuhihewa, another renowned king, were born in the place, among many others.
The stakes were dire for those who didn’t (or couldn’t) make the journey. They would forfeit “the rank, privileges and prerogatives of expected offspring,” if their child was born in a less sacred space, wrote Emma M. Nakuina in “O’ahunui,” an article published in the 1897 edition of Thrum’s Hawaiian Annual. The legends were taken so seriously that King Kamehameha I, the Hawaiian conquerer who united all the islands under his rule, made every attempt to have his child Liloliho born in Kukaniloko, seven centuries after the sacred space was first introduced. But his queen, Keopuolani, was too sick to make the journey.
The geographical center of Oahu was more than a birthing place for royalty — it also became the seat of their power. A few miles east of Kukaniloko was the residence of rulers. But it was the last king to reside here, O’ahanui, according to Nakuina’s account, who brought shame upon the sacred rocks. The young king became friends with the Lo-Alkanaka, a group of man-eating chiefs and priests who had been forced into the mountains by angry locals. O’ahanui began to dine with the cannibals, ostensibly not realizing that the “pork” he was eating was actually the human flesh of solo travelers who fell “easy prey” to the warriors of the Lo-Alkanaka.
The roar of the surf from Waialua could be heard when the king asked his brother-in-law and high chief, Lehuanui, to go fishing, according to documents in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. While sleeping on the fishing trip, Lehuanui had a dream that his two royal sons were being eaten, or so the mythology holds. He rushed home to find their bones wrapped in tapa leaves and the king asleep, engorged on flesh and awa, a medicinal drink and powerful sedative. Legends say that Lehuanui killed the king, and the attendants who had participated in cooking the children were turned to stones, some of which you can purportedly see today. The next leaders eventually relocated to Waikiki, near Honolulu, rather than continue living on sacred ground so stained.
Not everyone believes the cannibal king existed. Dennis Kawaharada, an English professor at Kapi’olani Community College, notes in one report that the name O’ahunui doesn’t appear in major Hawaiian genealogies. In Hawaiian Mythology, which was published in 1940, the historian Martha Warren Beckwith notes “there is no proof that cannibalism was ever practiced.” But the site of the supposed cannibal feasts attracted tourists in the 1800s, and such stories soon filled travel accounts. Europeans found the tales self-serving, writes Kawaharada: They proved that Pacific peoples were savages, making it easier to rationalize colonizing them and reaping their resources.
Separating fact and fiction can be difficult, but what is true is that Kukaniloko has not faded as a site of significant cultural importance. The Kukaniloko Birthstones State Monument was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has purchased the 511 acres surrounding the stones to save it from development. “The goal was to provide a buffer around the site,” says OHA public policy advocate Sterling Wong. Tourism is discouraged, as locals debate the next great cultural battle around Kukaniloko — what to do with the former birthplace of kings?
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