An Interview with Dr. Janet Six on the Mexican Obsidian Spear Point Found in Hawaii
A green-gold obsidian spear point found in the volcanic Haleakala Crater by Brian Axtell and Trevor Carter in 2009 became controversial last month when the H2 series America Unearthed announced the results of tests conducted by University of Hawaii anthropologist and lithics expert Peter R. Mills confirming that it was made of obsidian from Pachuca in Mexico before the show then claimed that the National Park Service was working to suppress Scott Wolter’s investigation of the spear point. Wolter’s key contact during his investigation was Dr. Janet Six, a University of Hawaii archaeologist who had worked with the spear point after Axtell and Carter showed it to her several years ago.
In order to learn more about the spear point, I arranged to speak with Dr. Six. Due to our conflicting schedules and the five hour time difference between my home in Albany and her office on Maui, it took a while to find a mutually convenient time. I spoke with Dr. Six last night by phone, and she summed up her views on the spear point in three words: “We don’t know.”
Six is extremely personable and was happy to share as much information as she had about the spear point, what scholars know about it, and what has yet to be determined. I began by asking Six the $64 question: Is the spear point a genuine pre-Contact Mesoamerican artifact?
“I’m not a lithics person or a Mayanist,” Six told me. “I showed it to Peter Mills [the lithics expert at UH], and it’s a little thick on one side so he said it could have been made for the tourist trade. It’s a little rough on one side. No one’s going to say anything definitive because we have to run more tests.”
Mills told Six that a genuine Mayan spearhead would typically feature more carefully knapping and a finer finish, leading him to suggest that it was most likely a modern imitation. However, he could not render a fuller opinion without obsidian hydration testing to rule in or out a modern date. It was possible, for example, that it was an unfinished Mayan spear point that had been discarded and then transported to Hawaii. Six notes that the spear point has a very carefully serrated edge. “It’s not just like a crude-knapped tool,” she said. This, in turn, implies that regardless of when it was made, it was carefully produced.
Six said that while the spear head was in her possession over the past few years (she used it as a teaching aid in her classes), she showed it to several experts, including experts in American archaeology. She told me that there was no consensus among the scholars who have viewed the spear head as to whether it is actually a Mesoamerican (most likely Mayan) artifact, and if so if it had been made before the Contact Period. She said that one Ph.D. dismissed it as having been knapped from a piece of discarded colonial glass, which is obviously incorrect as it is made of obsidian. Some felt it could be a genuine Mayan piece, while others felt it was a modern imitation.
I asked whether the location in the Haleakala Crater where the two men found the spearhead provides any clues to when and how the spearhead came to Hawaii. “It was found inside the main vent, the main caldera, which is about the size of Manhattan,” Six said. She informed me that there is no additional evidence from the location since Axtell and Carter did not document any other features of the area where they found the site, and neither Six nor anyone else has visited the area to look for the spot where it had been unearthed. She told me, however, that her conversation with the two men revealed details about the burial of the spearhead that convinced her that they did not plant it. This involved the very specific way obsidian becomes embedded in the surrounding soil.
But even these details did not provide any indication of how long the spearhead had been in the Haleakala Crater. She finds it interesting that the artifact seems to have been carefully placed in an obscure spot that requires somewhat difficult climbing to reach. It is not on the normal path, and it requires climbing skills to get to. “People throw things into the crater all the time,” she said, but the location of the artifact high up on the crater wall implies that it had been placed there for a reason rather than simply tossed into the volcano. “Someone went through a lot of trouble to put it there.”
It was found in an area on the side of the Haleakala Crater that was not impacted by the volcanic eruption of the early eighteenth century, meaning that there is no geological evidence to place either a terminus post quem or a terminus ante quem on the deposition of the spear point.
Six told me that the part of the crater wall where it was found is an area where there are important Hawaiian burial caves, and this was one reason to think that the spear point could have been placed there by Native Hawaiians. “Hawaiians don’t mark their burials,” she said, because “if someone could access your burial cave they could take your grave goods and your power.” She suggests that an exotic and reflective item from a foreign land might have been used as grave goods and percolated out or been blasted out of the ground in more recent times.
However, even this potential explanation—which remains speculative until the area can be surveyed for burial locations—does not preclude a post-Contact deposit. “It could have come on a whaler,” she said, during the early Contact Period, brought by a ship that had passed through Mexico and then used in a nineteenth-century grave.
Six said that an obsidian hydration test could have helped narrow possibilities, but even this would not indicate the date of deposit since an older artifact could always be brought to Hawaii at a later date. Instead, the test could have indicated whether the object was a modern tourist object and brought to Hawaii during the Harmonic Convergence of 1987 or later. America Unearthed planned to pay for the expensive test, but the National Park Service took possession of the spear point before the test was scheduled to be conducted.
Six has not seen the episode of America Unearthed and dismissed the show’s implication of a National Park Service conspiracy aimed at suppressing the work of Scott Wolter as unfounded. However, Six was also extremely critical of the way the NPS handled the spear point. Six had contacted the Park Service herself before America Unearthed but no one expressed interest in the spearhead until the America Unearthed contacted the Park Service to secure permits to film inside Haleakala National Park. Only with the threat of national publicity for the NPS’s non-interest in an illegally-removed artifact did the NPS take the stone from Axtell and Carter while the two men were meeting with Park Service officials at a local Starbucks in a meeting arranged by America Unearthed producers. After the seizure, Six contacted the NPS, who told her they were investigating whether the men tried to profit from transport, sale, and display of an illegally obtained artifact. Six said that the Park Service declined an offer from America Unearthed to appear on the show to discuss the artifact and explain on camera why archaeological material should never be removed from national parks.
The National Park Service declined to comment, pointing instead to a press release in which they said that the spear point is part of an ongoing but unspecified investigation.
Six said that as a scientist she can’t speculate about whether the spearhead is ancient or modern, or when it was brought to Hawaii. However, she takes a very expansive view of Hawaiian (and Polynesian in general) trans-Pacific contact with the Americas. She has a well-developed story she related at length about Polynesian trans-oceanic contact spanning across thousands of years. For example, she sees as evidence that the Hawaiians had contact with “other races” somewhat unsecure references in the Hawaiian creation myth, the Kumulipo, to the first humans, born from a woman’s brain and
…the ruddy tint by which they were known
Showed the fine reddish hair at puberty [?]
Showed on the chin a reddish beard
(9.651-3, trans. Martha Warren Beckwith)
She also accepts as well-established the evidence for a Polynesian presence among the Chumash of California, as well as Polynesian contact with both Peru in Chile. She places great weight on Hawaiian oral traditions of a misty overseas land, which some modern Hawaiians today interpret as the Americas. As a result, she feels that Mesoamerica must also have had contact with Polynesia, and she believes that the colossal heads of Olmec are evidence of this. “The Olmec heads are really interesting,” she said. “They have distinctly flat noses and lips, and they were originally interpreted as African. However, they have epicanthic eye folds that are uniquely Asian, and the Polynesians come originally from Taiwan.”
The Olmec heads date to c. 1500-900 BCE, long before the Polynesians reached Hawaii (c. 500-1200 CE) or Easter Island (c. 700-1100 CE), had alleged contact with the Chumash (c. 700 CE), and or reached Peru and Chile (c. 500-700 CE). Experts in Mesoamerican archaeology point to the fact that the faces depicted on the Olmec heads closely resemble the native population still living in the same area today as evidence that the heads depicted native Olmec rulers, whose ancient ancestors were, of course, from Ice Age Asia. The native people of the tropical lowlands of Mesoamerica have epicanthic eye folds, which biological anthropologists believe is an adaptation to the tropical climate.
Six also believes that recent studies that linked the Mexican bottle gourd, the calabash, to Asia support the hypothesis that the Polynesians brought it to America. The most recent study, from February of this year, instead linked the American gourd to African species and suggested that the gourd floated across the Atlantic. Earlier studies suggested that the Paleoindians had carried them from Asia. At any rate, the gourds have been in use in the Americas since at least 6000 BCE, if not earlier, which far predates the emergence of Polynesian culture from the Austronesian speakers who left Taiwan between 3000 and 1000 BCE.
It remains possible that the early Polynesians who colonized the western Pacific between 1400 and 700 BCE could have sailed to Mesoamerica, but if they did they left no trace across the eastern Pacific islands during the Olmec period in Mexico or earlier.
3/11/2014 04:36:25 am
Thanks Jason, very interesting interview.
Rev. Phil Gotsch
3/11/2014 06:21:58 am
EXCELLENT information, thoughtfully gathered and shared … Thank you ...
3/11/2014 07:27:00 am
My mother pointed out, when I was talking to her about this, that, assuming it were a genuine pre-Columbian artifact, Polynesians wouldn't have had to get the spear point directly from Mesoamerica. Trade isn't always a direct one-to-one transaction, particularly with items that are beautiful and/or unusual--and this spear point may have been precisely that, outside of Mesoamerica. A single out-of-place artifact doesn't actually mean contact OR a hoax.
3/11/2014 07:59:14 am
A good read and interesting interview. It's nice to have a bit more back story to the whole situation. I find it curious that the overall description of the spearhead she lays out makes a strong case for it being an amateur attempt, though obviously whether or not it's a genuine piece- perhaps made as practice- or a tourist trinket is still up in the air.
3/11/2014 08:05:29 am
This is a wild thought, but is there any possibility this is an example of geocaching?
3/11/2014 08:18:40 am
I would say its plausible as any of the other theories. I still think the Harmonic Convergence meeting seems extremely plausible. Geocaching does provide a reasonable explanation to the location it was found in.
3/11/2014 10:51:32 am
Or mess-with-their-head caching. When I was a Cub Scout (in the early Pleistocene) my dad and I used a grinder to shape an "Indian tomahawk" out of a fortuitously shaped piece of rock we found in a field. Years later I skipped that stone out across the Susquehanna river near Liverpool, Pa. One of these summers, when the river is particularly low, someone is going to find that "primitive stone axe head"...
3/11/2014 11:30:37 am
Oh, that would just make my day. I sincerely hope it is.
The Other J.
3/11/2014 06:45:52 pm
3/11/2014 08:22:17 am
Very interesting "temporary epilogue" to this still-unfolding drama, and very nicely relayed in detail.
Re. Phil Gotsch
3/11/2014 08:35:19 am
Microscopic examination of a thin section of an obsidian artifact can yield a relative date for the "knapping" since a freshly exposed face on a piece of obsidian will react with ambient environment at a fairly measurable rate … It's not as refined and accurate as a C-14 date but it gives one good approximation of age ...
3/11/2014 09:37:10 am
Thanks Rev. Phil. Would this involve comparing originally formed obsidian with newly knapped obsidian, in the same specimen? Also, if you don't mind, are you referring to a "cross-section" of the thin section to make this comparison between the old and new? Thanks again, if you can help with this.
3/11/2014 10:24:32 am
Yes, it would give the date since a particular edge was last exposed (setting the hydration clock to zero, if you will).
Rev. Phil Gotsch
3/11/2014 10:32:16 am
A suface hydration date of an obsidian artifact yields always only a "relative" date, not an "absolute" date ...
3/11/2014 10:36:42 am
Do you mean a surface find?
Rev. Phil Gotsch
3/11/2014 10:47:50 am
Absolute dating methods, such as C-14 and U-Pb, rely upon a known rate of a process that is NOT influenced by environment or environmental changes …
3/11/2014 10:56:04 am
Those radiometric techniques are absolute techniques, but as the article I linked to (and the wiki linked to) both discuss, obsidian hydration has also been used as an absolute technique. For some others following this discussion, an absolute technique gives you a date range, while a relative technique gives you "is this older or younger than that". Relative techniques can be correlated with other information, most typically in archaeology the use of seriation (based on style, how you know how old a car is by whether it has tail fins or rounded corners), a relative technique that is tied into absolute dating info (in this case, documentary evidence such as photographs).
Rev. Phil Gotsch
3/11/2014 11:13:22 am
A measurement of the rate of surface hydration can be "calibrated" only crudely, since it is difficult to know for certain EXACTLY what the soil and moisture and weather conditions have been over a long period of time …
3/11/2014 03:46:02 pm
As I said, it's a probematic method for absolute dating. But it is a method people have used for absolute dating, regardless of how problematic.
3/11/2014 10:38:41 am
Here's the article I refer to, btw, for the issues regarding calibration
3/11/2014 02:58:40 pm
3/11/2014 03:50:11 pm
It would probably answer whether the thing has been knapped in the last couple of decades. Still wouldn't be evidence against a hoax (as an ancient object could have been placed there, or coughed up with a story), but it would be an obvious thing to look at along with sourcing, which has already been done.
3/11/2014 11:12:22 am
I don't want to be unnecessarily rude but Dr Six would do great alongside Jonathan Young on the Ancient Aliens program."Dr Six believes,she sees as evidence,She accepts..."based on what?.I am probably hardcore but unlike Dr Six,I need more than "oral traditions" to make up my mind.She is constructing an entire beliefs system based on assertions,interpretations & speculations.She has the right to do so,but she cannot call it science.
3/11/2014 11:17:44 am
So, what it boils down to, is determining whether the spearhead is a modern construction. Relative date or absolute, either one would close the door on the question. If it's modern, then the Harmonic Convergence would be the most likely explanation of how it came to be in the park.
3/11/2014 03:57:17 pm
Even if it is old, that wouldn't be evidence of contact, by itself. It could have been planted. It could have been dropped at the Convergence. Its possible it got there in some other fashion though that does stretch probabilities.
3/11/2014 04:46:32 pm
Agreed. More evidence is needed, to establish whether the spearhead is a one-time find. If more evidence is found, I count it as a win for everybody, since we'll be adding to our understanding and knowledge of history. If this is the only artifact found, even if proven to be real, the Polynesian-Mesoamerican contact hypothesis will have to be classified as "possible...but unproven".
3/11/2014 02:04:54 pm
I appreciate all the input and links about obsidian age-testing.
3/12/2014 06:25:57 am
3/12/2014 07:38:06 am
PNO TECH, I guess I'm having some trouble understanding how something more dense, or less permeable, can help effect age testing, while greater porosity hinders the process. I guess it's difficult to think of something as hard as obsidian as having any porosity at all. Also, it seems like lower porosity would make age-testing more difficult because of less ambient "impact" than on a softer stone. Can you or someone else help clear this up?
Rev. Phil Gotsch
3/12/2014 10:21:57 am
"Obsidian" is a volcanic glass, i.e., a lava that cooled so RAPIDLY that no individual minerals had any time to crystallize out …
3/12/2014 12:27:31 pm
Gunn, here's something to consider about the porosity issue.
3/12/2014 01:04:26 pm
Thanks. I'm trying to understand why dense material is better for hydration testing than porous material. I'm also trying to figure out if hydration testing can be applied to say, graywackle, a dark coarse sandstone, I think, or even to just common granite boulders, for instance, where the original glacial surface is disturbed much later.
3/12/2014 01:11:44 pm
Only Me, I didn't see your posting until after I posted the comments I was working on, just above. Thanks for the input; the links make it much easier to understand, but take a while to read.
3/12/2014 01:35:27 pm
So then, after researching obsidian age-testing, it becomes more apparent that--possibly--more can be ascertained about the Maui spearhead by zooming in on the area the relic was found. Perhaps, then, it was not subjected to volcanic outbursts which would have covered it over. Or perhaps it was "shaken" to a point of visibility, but not completely covered over.
3/13/2014 04:47:07 am
i'd say its at 50/50 odds
Mark E. gave us a cool link earlier!!! (J.A.D)
3/13/2014 05:17:22 am
3/13/2014 05:50:46 am
Very wonderful specimen, but the base is vastly different from the Hawaii specimen.
3/13/2014 06:20:08 am
Gunn... the two MAYAN spearpoints in the link Mark E. gave us,
But, of course any scientific hydration testing wouldn't mean as much if the aging of the artifact happened somewhere else, such as in Mexico. And then, too, aging since knapping may have happened both in Mexico, and in Hawaii, if it is genuine. It seems like hydration testing on location may not do much good, ultimately, unless it shows that it was freshly knapped, which would answer most questions here.
3/14/2014 05:19:41 pm
Great interview, Jason, and great comments and links. I've also been looking at tons of examples and comparing them to the spear point in question. It has such a different base, lack of symmetry and thickness than so many other spear points. Overall, there's a crudeness to it--but I'm not sure if that argues for or against its authenticity.
3/16/2014 04:05:52 am
It is likely the ancient Condor carried the spear point from South America to Hawaii. These birds of prey fed on large animals and were fond of dead ones. They traveled long distances and had wing spans of 25 ft. Did anyone smell the stone to see if it dropped a rock in Hawaii?
3/16/2014 11:49:41 am
Why am I reminded of the swallow and the coconut scenario from Monty Python and the Holy Grail?
Rev. Phil Gotsch
3/16/2014 12:07:24 pm
"It could grasp it by the husk … "
3/16/2014 05:12:26 am
The following link has a map showing the migration of the Hawaii Frigate bird (Condor species) (http://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/condor/v088n03/p0304-p0317.pdf) I think this is the likely means of transportation of the arrow head from Mexico to Hawaii. But then I am not the expert like the History Chanel players. It would be good if the parks department of Hawaii sent the arrow head back to Mexico.
3/17/2014 04:05:28 am
You think a bird carried a dead animal thousands of miles? Seems highly unlikely.
3/17/2014 02:20:04 pm
RLewis - Many sea birds can consume over 3 lbs. of meat and go for weeks without eating. The ancient Condors had larger capacities than the few that remain today. The Frigate bird and other sea birds of Hawaii nest on the high volcanic rocks. They are known to eat shells for calcium. If you read the article I posted earlier (http://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/condor/v088n03/p0304-p0317.pdf), The ancient sailors released frigate birds when they wanted to find land because of their ability to fly toward land. To answer your question. It is unlikely they carried a complete animal, however the arrowhead in a piece of that animal is very probable. The leading demise of the California Condor is due to lead shot consumed by the bird when he eats dead prey left by modern man hunting with lead shot.
3/18/2014 01:58:32 am
Sorry, still not buying it.
3/18/2014 07:03:31 am
R Lewis - I understand your position about the capability of birds being able to carry an arrow head from Mexico to Hawaii, however it is a theory. Many birds have the capacity to do this. If you look at the present day species in Hawaii as well as those in South America you will find many that may have made the journey with the arrow head. To decrease the number to the most likely you will find the Frigate bird has the best chance, however you can not omit the Pelican species and even the Canadian Geese. The number decreases even more when you look at the area where the arrow head was found and consider the nesting habits of this area. I have personally witnessed the American white pelican catch lake suckers over 10 lbs. in their bill in the spring when the fish are spawning in small streams. I have also caught northern pike with stones as large as the arrow head in their stomach. This theory is hard to prove, however should be considered before we accept Scott Wolter and the H2 channel as truth to the evolution of man.
3/18/2014 09:34:30 am
I generally take exception to the phrase "this is the likely means of transportation of the arrow head from Mexico to Hawaii".. I don't think you have made a good case for "likely". You've switched from ancient Condors (which may have been more scavenger than birds of prey) to Frigates (I question the strength of their talons) to the northern pike.
3/18/2014 09:57:22 am
R Lewis - My point is their are other theories to be considered. If we do not challenge the first produced by the History Chanel we can assume the world is flat. I also feel the Newport Tower in R.I. is a smoke house for processing cod fish and the New Hampshire mystery stone is a lodestone from a compass.
7/8/2014 04:57:52 am
I've travelled to Hawaii several times. I've placed numerous spearpoints in vents. Keep looking, you'll find more.
Rev. Phil Gotsch
8/17/2014 05:03:10 pm
You have an interesting hobby ...
8/17/2014 04:49:34 pm
In light of the carved rock with magnetic properties found in
bones more recent than 400,ooo years can be DNA tested
10/19/2015 04:56:45 am
haleakala is a an alchatraz they get to keep you prisoner long time before they let you go. and they take anything they want from the park and get away with it. never let them know what you find. most rocks are graves, and curses travel world wide. spaceships travel there nightly and lives of rangers rare threatened if ever reported.
12/12/2016 01:06:13 pm
Wesley D. Stoner
9/5/2019 09:53:41 am
I am researching this for a class I am teaching in Pseudoarchaeology. I have handled this artifact, and I can say with certainty that it is a poorly made fake. Green obsidian can be purchased on ebay. The point is too thick and heavy to be functional. Most of the flaking terminates in hinge fractures, a sign of a poor knapper. Finally, there are undetached microflakes all over the thing that could detach with even the slightest pressure from a fingernail. 1000 years kicking around on the surface (again, speaking in terms of archaeological context, why not somehow buried after 1000 years?) and these undetached microflakes would no longer be there. OR at least there would be some dirt under them, which there wasn't. How did it get there in the first place? A clumsy hunter accidentally lost his point that was transported across a vast ocean? For those who want to believe this, sorry...it's a fake. Not saying there couldn't have been contact, but this artifact does not support that contact.
Wesley D. Stoner
9/5/2019 10:02:12 am
I'll add that we did chemical analysis on the point, and it IS from the Pachuca source in central Mexico. But like I said above, that only proves that someone had access to ebay, or visited Teotihuacan where someone can buy points like this for 20 pesos.
2/7/2021 05:10:14 pm
There is the story of Arctic whalers capturing a right whale with a 200 yr old Inuit spear point imbedded in it, this could have happened here with Mayan whalers, the whale may have washed up on shore or harvested by Hawaiian whalers, the point may have been Mayan fine and then re-sharpened by the finder/owner, prestige piece for burial with owner,, just a thought
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