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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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