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Jan. 2002, Vol. 27 No. 1
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Discovering Kaua'i’s Real ‘Lost World’

by Cheryl Ernst

Everywhere David Burney explored in his quest to continue the paleontology work of Smithsonian scientists on Kaua'i, the residents told him the same thing—he needed to talk to Pila. “It was clear I wasn’t going to work on this island without his OK,” the Fordham University professor recalls with a grin.

Pila is the nickname of Kaua'i Community College Emeritus Professor William Kikuchi, who has done archaeological research on the Garden Island since 1958. The two scientists formed a warm friendship and productive partnership. “We both love the field, we love what we do and we love playing in the mud,” Kikuchi jests. “We don’t do it for the money or the fame…although a little fame would be nice.” Fame of a sort arrived fall 2001—in a segment on the Nova television series on evolution and an article printed in Ecological Monographs.

graphic cross section of dig

Beyond the golf course at Po'ipu, just off the horse trail, beneath water and layers of clay and sand inside an ancient sinkhole called Makauwahi, the pair have discovered plant and animal fossils that are changing what is known about prehistory Kaua'i. “This is the Olduvai Gorge or La Brea Tar Pits of Hawai'i,” exclaims Burney. “We keep finding things. We could dig here forever.” Findings include unexpected plants, land crabs and flightless birds that grazed like goats. “It really was wild, almost beyond imagining,” says Burney. “This is Kaua'i’s real lost world.”

Several hundred thousand years ago, fluctuating sea levels deposited ground up coral on the south shore of Kaua'i. The sand recrystalized in a dune field. Fresh water flowing between the dunes and the underlying lava hollowed out one of Hawai'i’s few limestone caves. Sea levels rose again, flooding the cave with sea water about 7,000 years ago. Parts of the cave roof collapsed, cutting off the sea, and by the 13th century the sinkhole had become a freshwater lake and natural fish pond. Sediment gradually turned the lake into a swamp, creating a 15-foot layer of peat-like material full of shells and bones. A tsunami deposited a layer of rock, sand and Polynesian artifacts about 350 to 400 years ago. Sand from over-grazed dunes blew in during the era of European contact. Finally, erosion from the draining of a nearby pond during the 1950s topped it all with a 6-foot layer of clay, sealing off what Burney calls a “poor man’s time machine.”

The site is unusual because it provides both a well-preserved and continuous record, like the pages of a diary. The clay that discouraged earlier pot hunters and fossil seekers didn’t deter Burney. He used a coring technique to sample various sections of the cave and sinkhole floors. Results were tantalizing, but it takes hard labor and heavy duty water pumps to reach the paleontological gold that lies below the natural water table.

“Pila got his anthropology group involved. Right from the beginning, Kaua'i Community College gave us the momentum to get going,” Burney says. Students, alumni, school groups and community members help shovel clay, shift rocks and sift muck in search of artifacts and fossils that can range from a 16th of an inch to a foot in length. One regular is Kikuchi’s wife Dolly. “I was never very interested in birds. Now I can find the toe bone of an extinct owl and know what it is,” she says.

Another volunteer is Marge Ferguson, an accountant whose interest in archaeology led her to Kikuchi’s class in 1998. She went to the Makauwahi dig, got hooked and wound up involved in Na Malama Maha'ulepu, which raises funds and promotes efforts to preserve thearea that includes the cave. The effort requires diplomacy. The researchers work with the island’s burial council to ensure that human remains known to be in remote recesses of the cave remain undisturbed. They also coordinate their activities with Grove Farm, which holds title to the sinkhole and surrounding land.

Certain that the effort is worthwhile, Burney has convinced the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Smithsonian Institution, National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society to provide funding over the past nine years. Thirty feet down in the center of the sinkhole and having examined 300 cubic yards of earth as of 2001, he’s obtained thousands of specimens dating as far back as 10,000 years. He estimates scientists could work the site for another 100 years or more.

Burney’s wants to understand the past. By the end of the Polynesian period, nearly all the birds were gone from the lowlands, snails were disappearing and the land crabs had steadily diminishing claws. Was it the effect of over-exploitation and Hawaiians’ introduction of dogs, pigs, rats and burn agriculture techniques that turned forests into grasslands? How did the arrival of the Europeans with so many non-native plants and animals influence the extinction of most remaining native species? “I want to reconstruct the landscape, looking at bones, pollen, seeds and artifacts. At Maha'ulepu, you have it all together in one site,” he says.

But Burney also considers himself a futurist—someone who would “like to see society get safely past the present.” To that end, his work could bolster restoration efforts. Demonstrating that species such as the Laysan duck and 'Io, or Hawaiian hawk, existed on Kaua'i suggests that reintroduction from the Laysan Islands and Island of Hawai'i, respectively, might be appropriate. Discovery that the kou tree arrived in Hawai'i even before the Polynesians supports it as a viable indigenous forestry crop. Evidence that the fragrant Zanthoxylum tree now found in Koke'e once grew at lower elevations expands the range where reintroduction is feasible.

Speaking to volunteers and community leaders on Kaua'i earlier this year, Burney concluded with an invitation: “Pitch in with us to ensure that these resources will always be here for the people of Hawai'i.”


Discoveries at Makauwahi

Fossil remains of 40–50 types of birds, most extinct or near extinction, have been identified at the sinkhole. Some have augmented finds by famed Smithsonian ornithologists Storrs Olson and Helen James on nearby but less well-preserved dunes. Others represent new species. Among the finds—


Head shot of a smiling man with close-cropped hair

Preserving the past on the island

A brush with prostate cancer last year got William “Pila” Kikuchi thinking about his own mortality and the future of the archaeological data produced by surveys and excavations on Kaua'i. Both materials and documentation should be preserved for future education and research on the island where they were found or made, Kikuchi concluded. With the support of Kaua'i CC, Kikuchi proposed raising funds to build an archaeological archival storage center to be available to researchers, integrated into cultural and scientific courses and used for public exhibits. The project advisory board includes paleoecologist David Burney, who is conducting research at 12 Kaua'i sites; veteran Bishop Museum archaeologist Yoshihiko Sinoto; Hallett Hammatt and William Folk of Cultural Surveys Hawai'i; and Martha Yent from the state parks department’s Historical Sites Division. For more information on the project, contact Shirley Tani at 808 245-8377.


Cheryl Ernst is creative services director and Malamalama editor