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A Millennium of Human Activity at Makauwahi Cave, Māhāūulepū, Kauaūi

A cave system in the eolianite deposits of the Māhā′ulepū/Pā′ā area of Kaua′i, Hawai′i, contains a rich fossil record of prehuman Holocene conditions and also preserves a thousand-year record of human activity. Details concerning pre-Contact Polynesian life have been extracted from subaqueous middens and artifacts, including perishable materials such as wood, gourd, and cordage. Oral traditions concerning the cave and vicinity generally show good agreement with the archaeological and paleoecological record and provide rich stories said to derive from as early as the fourteenth century A.D. Fossil evidence highlights biotic and landscape changes before, during, and after initial Polynesian and subsequent European settlement. The approximate temporal coincidence of evidence for human arrival and last occurrence of some now-extinct species is too great to ignore the possibility that humans played a role in some extinctions of native taxa before European colonization. Old maps, an 1824 sketch, records of the Land Court Awards, and old photographs confirm stratigraphic inferences and oral accounts concerning demographic and ecological conditions of the early historical period. Feral livestock proliferated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with loss of vegetative cover to overgrazing, decline of most of the native flora, and subsequent dune reactivation. Sedimentation rates reach their peak later in the twentieth century after the establishment of agricultural and mining operations nearby.

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Our wives, Lida Pigott Burney and Delores Kikuchi, deserve special thanks for the many hours they have devoted to this project. Thanks also to our children, Mara and Alec Burney, Kristina Kikuchi-Palenapa, Kathleen Kikuchi-Samonte, and Michelei Motooka for their enthusiastic help. Over 300 people, mostly Kaua`i residents, have assisted with coring and excavation at Makauwahi. In particular we thank those who came back time after muddy time to keep the project going, including Adam Asquith, Mel Gabel, Reginald Gage II, Helen James, Lorrin Mano`i, Bob Nishek, Storrs Olson, Ed Sills, Randy Silva, and Koa Young. Thanks also to Allan Smith and the Grove Farm Company for permission to work on their property, and for assistance with security. LaFrance Kapaka of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Island Burial Council has helped and inspired us at many levels, and shared with us her precious ancestral memories of this sacred place. Helen James, Storrs Olson, Ryan Ly, and Alec Burney graciously shared their unpublished data on the site. Nancy McMahon assisted with official permissions. Lida Pigott Burney, Delores Kikuchi, and Cameron McNeil provided useful comments on the manuscript and assisted with the laboratory work. Paul S. Martin and the late William Klein convinced us that this big undertaking would be feasible and worthwhile. David Crawshaw has helped maintain the appearance and security of the site. This research was supported by NOAA Human Dimensions of Global Change grant #NA46GP0465, NSF grant DEB-9707260, National Geographic Society grant 7072-01, and funding from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, Kaua`i Community College, Kilauea Point Natural History Association, and the Faculty Research Grants and Faculty Fellowship programs of Fordham University.

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Correspondence to David A. Burney.



Table 5 Appendix. C Dates for Makauwahi Cave.

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Burney, D.A., Kikuchi, W.K.P. A Millennium of Human Activity at Makauwahi Cave, Māhāūulepū, Kauaūi. Hum Ecol 34, 219–247 (2006).

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  • Hawai′i
  • human settlement
  • ecological change
  • prehistoric diet
  • perishable artifacts