If the sand hadn’t shifted just right, and if a beam of sunlight hadn’t illuminated the shoreline at that very moment, and if no one had actually been on the beach to see it, 17 giant petroglyphs in Hawaii might never have been rediscovered.
In the past several weeks, working off a tip from a couple of tourists who saw the unusual markings in the sand during a trip to the beach last month, archaeologists have uncovered a series of figures etched into sandstone across a 60-foot stretch of the Waianae Coast, on the island of Oahu. Officials estimate the markings are some 400 years old, predating European contact with Hawaii by nearly two centuries.
“We consider these Waianae petroglyphs to be consistent with traditional pre-Cook Hawaiian petroglyphs,” wrote Edward Stasack and Diane Stasack, who are widely considered to be leading experts on Hawaiian petroglyphs, in an email. (“Pre-Cook” is a reference to James Cook, the British explorer who first arrived in Hawaii in 1778.) “The ones we’ve seen appear to be those with a linear torso—commonly and regrettably referred to as ‘stick figure.’”
Archaeologists are baffled and delighted by the discovery. Though petroglyphs are found at historic sites throughout the Hawaiian islands, it’s uncommon to find them so close to the water. The discovery is unusual in other ways, too. “We find a lot of petroglyphs that are a foot or so tall, but this one measures four to five feet from head to toe,” said Alton Exzabe, an archaeologist in the Army, in a statement by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. “It’s pretty impressive.”