Hawaiian Cave Reveals Ancient Secrets

By | October 28, 2008

From the moment we saw it, we knew the place held many great secrets. We had been looking for new fossil sites on the south side of the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1992 with our colleagues, Helen F. James and Storrs L. Olson of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., along with their children, Travis and Sydney, and our own, Mara and Alec.

And what we found was a cave – once a Pleistocene dune field, and later a sinkhole with pickling-jar powers – that may be the richest fossil site in the Hawaiian Islands, perhaps in the entire Pacific Island region.

Sixteen years after our discovery, we have excavated seeds, pollen, Polynesian artifacts, thousands of bird and fish bones, and more from this half-acre pile of sediments spanning many millennia. The site has yielded up some of the island’s long-kept secrets, telling of a time when the largest land animals here were flightless waterfowl, such as the turtle-jawed moa nalo (Chelychelynechen quassus). Moreover, it documents the great changes that occurred when first Polynesians, and later Europeans, Americans, and Asians, arrived with boatloads of invasive alien species.

The first boats began arriving roughly a thousand years ago, kicking off the first of three stages of extinction on Kauai. In the first stage, Polynesians probably overhunted the large flightless birds, while introduced rats, chickens, and small pigs disrupted their remaining nests. Later, but before Captain Cook arrived in 1778, the agriculture of a growing Hawaiian population wiped out more species. Finally, Europeans arrived and brought goats and other livestock that finished the job.

In 2000 we learned the long-lost nineteenth-century name of the cave, Makauwahi, thanks to a local archaeologist, William K. “Pila” Kikuchi, who recovered the name from an essay written by a high school student more than a century ago. It means something like “smoke eye.” That may have been in reference to Keahikuni, a mid-nineteenth-century native diviner who read the future in spirals of smoke rising from the sinkhole. – yahoo

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