USGS HVO Press Release — Pele-Hi‘iaka Chants Describe History of Kīlauea Volcanic Activity

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On Saturday, January 2, 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory kicks off Volcano Awareness Month. Traditional Hawaiian chants are revealing important information to scientists about the age and history of Kīlauea's volcanic activity.

Don Swanson, a senior geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, has spent the past 12 years studying the formation of Kīlauea's caldera and the possible connection to some of the epic Hawaiian tales of the volcano deity Pele and her sister Hi‘iaka. He believes that earlier erroneous interpretations of the caldera's age would have benefited from inclusion of the chants, as well as oral history told to William Ellis in 1823.

Swanson believes that English versions of the Pele-Hi‘iaka chants, published by Nathaniel Emerson in 1915, include descriptions of the two largest volcanic events at Kīlauea since Polynesians first arrived 1,000–1,200 years ago.

The first is a huge 15th century lava flow that covers much of Kīlauea north of the east rift zone, from Kīlauea Iki to Kaloli Point. Swanson interprets the story of Pele burning the Puna forest dear to Hi‘iaka as a description of this flow.

The second major event was the collapse of Kīlauea's summit in about 1500 to form the modern caldera. Swanson thinks this event is described in the chants as Hi‘iaka's digging to recover the body of Lohi‘au, the romantic interest of both sisters, whom Pele had killed.

Swanson suggests that there are many untranslated oral traditions that describe other important natural events and await study by Hawaiian speakers trained in science.

On Friday, January 8, as part of Volcano Awareness Month, Don Swanson will present his geologic interpretations of the Pele-Hi‘iaka chants and of the oral history told to William Ellis in a talk at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo in Room UCB 100, at 7:30 p.m.

Daily updates about ongoing eruptions, recent images and videos of summit and East Rift Zone volcanic activity, maps, and data about recent earthquakes in Hawaii are posted on the HVO website at

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