Issue 20.2: April/May 2017

Unearthing Time

Archaeologist Patrick Kirch digs deeply into Polynesia’s past one thin layer of dirt at a time
Story by David Thompson. Photos by Jay Watson.

One day in 1997, when the archaeologist Patrick Vinton Kirch was two years into a long-term study of Kahikinui, the windswept district on the desolate leeward side of Maui’s Haleakalā volcano, he met the Reverend Kawika Ka‘alakea, a pastor from the Hawaiian Congregational Church.

Ka‘alakea, a Native Hawaiian kupuna (elder) with deep ties to Kahikinui, he and his graduate students were mapping.“Maika‘i,” Ka‘alakea said, “maika‘i.” Good, good. He was glad that someone was trying to preserve the ancient knowledge.

Then, looking deeply into Kirch’s eyes, Ka‘alakea offered a friendly warning. Kahikinui can be a dangerous land, he said, one inhabited by ‘uhane, wandering spirits, who might “whistle” at the strangers and lead them astray. Ignore them, he said. They’re just curious. Do your work, leave everything as you found it, and you won’t have any problems.

Other scientists might have politely thanked the well-meaning kupuna for his sage advice and privately laughed. Kirch took the advice to heart. Over the course of seventeen years, Kirch studied Kahikinui intensively. What is now an unpopulated region was once a thriving dryland agricultural zone, and through painstaking surveys and excavations Kirch and his research teams recorded thousands of house sites, rock walls, terraces, petroglyphs, heiau (temples) and other features. Kahikinui yielded a profusion of evidence for Kirch’s argument that a decline in agricultural yields on Maui and Hawai‘i Island fueled interisland warfare and contributed to the transformation of Hawaiian society from one led by chiefs to one ruled by god-kings. More than once during the course of this research, the ‘uhane did indeed whistle at him, but, heeding Ka‘alakea’s advice, Kirch paid no attention. And they never gave him any trouble.

“I do not doubt that spirits of generations of maka‘āinana [commoners] who once walked this land still frequent it,” Kirch wrote in his 2014 book, Kua‘āina Kahiko: Life and Land in Ancient Kahikinui, Maui. “Sometimes, when we least expect it, they may reach out to us. Some will scoff at this confession. ‘I thought you were an archaeologist, an empirical scientist,’ they will say. But respect for the spiritual essences of the ‘āina and its deep human history does not contradict my professional ethics and beliefs. On the contrary, I find these to be complementary. Perhaps this reflects having been born and raised in Hawai‘i, where I was infused with such ideas of the ‘āina as inhabited by forces, spirits—whatever you wish to call them—that sometimes lie beyond our immediate consciousness.”

Kirch is an eminent scholar, the grand old man of Pacific archaeology. He has done decades of fieldwork throughout Oceania, living among villagers in traditional societies where people still sleep in thatched houses, meals are still cooked in earthen ovens and chiefs still hold all the power. In a career that has spanned nearly fifty years, he’s stood at the forefront of an explosion of knowledge about Polynesian prehistory, with a particular interest in how island peoples have transformed their environments and vice versa. Drawing upon linguistics, genetics, ethnology, soil science, paleobotany and other fields, he’s applied the hard evidence of archaeology—the fish bones, adzes, earthen ovens, post holes, potsherds, carbonized sweet potatoes, etc.—to understand how Polynesian culture evolved and differentiated over the ages and across the vast reaches of the ocean.

A professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, Kirch is founder of the school’s Oceanic Archaeology Laboratory. He’s published some twenty books and monographs and more than three hundred scientific papers. He’s been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and other prestigious scholarly organizations. He is a giant in his field. Yet he is also a keiki o ka ‘āina—a child of the land—born in Honolulu and raised in Mānoa valley in the 1950s and 1960s. The moss-covered stone walls and other remnants of ancient Hawai‘i that he explored as a boy instilled in him a deep sense of wonder about the unwritten past. And after half a century that sense of wonder seems never to have left him.

The rise of chiefdoms and the ways Oceanic peoples have adapted to and altered their ecosystems are among Kirch’s research interests. Above, the teenage archaeologist on a dig.

I meet Kirch at the gate to Nu‘u Mauka Ranch in remote Kaupō, the moku, or district, adjacent to Kahikinui. He’s an easygoing, field-hardened 66-year-old with a gentle laugh and a piercing gaze. He looks like he’d be equally at ease navigating the departmental politics of a Berkeley faculty meeting as chewing betel nut with South Pacific Islanders. We hop into his jeep and take off along the unpaved road for a look around the ranch, an enormous expanse of old Hawai‘i virtually untouched by development. The ranch comprises almost the entire ahupua‘a, or ancient land division, of Nu‘u, and it was once densely populated by Hawaiian dryland farmers. There are rock walls, house foundations, heiau and other sites everywhere—more than four hundred altogether. Kirch has been gradually tackling the archaeological investigation of Nu‘u Ranch since 2005, with encouragement from the landowner, the late Charles Pili Keau, and his family. It was Keau who taught Kirch the Hawaiian way of silently and respectfully asking the ancestral spirits associated with a heiau or other ancient place for permission before entering. It’s a practice Kirch continues to this day. “I teach it to all of my students, too,” he says.

Kirch is semiretired now, holding onto his laboratory at Berkeley while his last two graduate students complete their training. One of them, Kristen Vacca, is here at Nu‘u leading a small team in an excavation, and Kirch has flown in for the week to assist. “Kristen’s perfectly capable of doing it all herself,” he says, “but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to come to Nu‘u. I love it out here.”

We visit the excavation, a small house site on a hill overlooking some ancient sweet potato fields, and Vacca’s team breaks for sandwiches. We walk through the nearby fields marked off by rock embankments overgrown with invasive haole koa and lantana and look at the foundation of a men’s meetinghouse, where farmers once gathered at the end of the day. Back in the jeep we bump along the rocky road, and Kirch points out various sites. At the bottom of a bluff, there are several curious stacks of rocks, which Kirch has no intention of disturbing. “Graves, probably,” he says somberly, “from ‘the great dying.’” He’s referring to the epidemics of smallpox, measles and other diseases to which Hawaiians had no resistance, which decimated the Native population in the nineteenth century. “A lot of people in Nu‘u died,” he says. “An awful lot of people.”

Kirch was part of the “New Archaeology” movement of the 1960s, which was less concerned with the evolution of fishhook and adze styles and more focused on the evolution of entire island societies. Above, Kirch (at right) collaborating with ethnobotanist Douglas Yen at Hālawa valley on Moloka‘i in 1969.

While Kirch has always been a prolific author of scientific literature, in recent years he’s thrown off what he calls “the shackles of academic prose” to write for popular audiences, such as Kua‘āina Kahiko. In that book Kirch reveals how, relatively late in Hawaiian history, farmers began to settle in Kahikinui, ingeniously transforming Maui’s rainless, rocky backcountry into what’s been called the greatest continuous zone of dryland planting in the Hawaiian Islands. Kirch is a natural storyteller, and the books are filled with anecdotes from the field along with the saga of a grass-roots Hawaiian group, Ka ‘Ohana o Kahikinui, which embraced the archaeologist and his work as it fought for Native land rights in Kahikinui. In A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai‘i (2012), Kirch brings both scientific evidence and Hawaiian oral tradition—something archaeologists have long ignored—to bear on the question of how Hawaiian civilization, though isolated from all outside influences, developed along similar lines to other ancient civilizations, like those of the pharaohs of Egypt and the Incas of Peru.

The latest book, Unearthing the Polynesian Past: Explorations and Adventures of an Island Archaeologist (2015), is a memoir of an extraordinary scientific career that began when Kirch became a 13-year-old intern in the lab of eccentric Bishop Museum malacologist Yoshio Kondo. There he learned the Linnaean system of biological classification and helped curate Kondo’s massive collection of Polynesian snail shells. Kirch developed a strong interest in snails, but archaeology was already his true passion. Seeing this, Kondo recommended the precocious teen to Kenneth Emory, the era’s guru of Polynesian archaeology. Emory, however, had no use for a kid on one of his digs, so Kondo encouraged Kirch to spend the next summer conducting his own archaeological fieldwork.

Above, Kirch at an excavation in the Mussau Islands of Papua New Guinea in 1986. The tools available to archaeologists 
today include GPS and the highly precise uranium/thorium dating method. Kirch uses them all. But for mapping archaeological sites he prefers more time-tested methods like a plane table and alidade.

And so he did. After devouring a stack of books on archaeological field methods, securing the permission of a landowner at Hālawa on Moloka‘i and enlisting the help of his father and his father’s fishing buddy, who were happy to spend a few weeks camping and surf casting there, Kirch launched his expedition. At Hālawa he found a midden in a sand dune, dug a three-by-three-foot test pit, sifted the earth and carefully labeled and bagged the bone and shell fragments he found. At the end of the summer, he sorted and classified his specimens, identified each shell, counted and weighed everything and wrote up the results. Emory was furious when he found a copy in his mailbox. He confronted Kondo in a meeting with the museum’s director, but Kondo stood his ground and forced Emory to concede that the teen had done everything right and that it was only after Emory declined to allow the boy to participate in a dig that Kondo encouraged him to do excavation. The following summer Emory sent Kirch to Hawai‘i Island to assist with an organized excavation there at South Point.

After graduating from Punahou School, Kirch studied at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University, returning to Hawai‘i in 1975 to work as a researcher at Bishop Museum. He would have been happy to spend his career at the museum, which had originally been at the forefront of science in the Pacific. But by the mid-1980s, with the institution’s commitment to research in decline, Kirch reluctantly moved on, first working as director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle, then accepting the post at UC Berkeley. Through the years it’s pained him to watch Bishop Museum’s financial struggles, and he has been an outspoken critic of its management. Recently, the museum’s interim director appointed him to the board of directors. “The place has huge problems,” he says, “but hopefully I can help make a difference.”

The jeep bumps along until we come to an upright stone with a small, ancient altar built around it; it’s a pōhaku o kāne, or phallic rock. Just beyond it is a multitiered heiau. Kirch parks, approaches the heiau and stands silently outside the wall with his eyes closed. After a while he opens his eyes and sees me staring at him questioningly. “I’m saying my mental bit,” he says—asking permission to enter the heiau, in other words. “You can do your own.” After we’ve both addressed the ancestral spirits, we climb over the wall into the lower court. It’s filled with wiliwili trees, but at one time it would have been filled with men from the area summoned to attend ceremonies. “A few years ago we put a small test pit against the back wall, and we found fishhooks and adze-making supplies,” he says. “People probably stayed here for some time.”

Kirch’s vintage alidade, an instrument surveyors have used for centuries.

We climb to the upper tiers, where the priests worked, and Kirch explains the hypothesis he developed to decode the purpose of the region’s heiau. “Heiau have axes of orientation,” he says, “They’re like Christian churches, which have the altar on one end and the entrance on the other.” Previous generations of archaeologists believed that heiau were simply aligned with the features of the surrounding landscape, but after carefully mapping dozens of heiau in Kahikinui, Kirch noticed a pattern: Almost all of the temples faced one of three directions: east, northeast or north.

The east-facing heiau, he says, may have been dedicated to the god Kāne, whose domain is the east. Kāne is also the god of flowing waters, and most of these temples were built near freshwater sources. The northeast-facing temples align with the point on the horizon where the Pleiades 
would have risen in the eighteenth century, when these heiau were constructed; the appearance of the Pleiades marked the start of the makahaki harvest season, held in honor of Lono, god of rain, thunder and sweet potatoes. These, Kirch believes, are the temples of Lono. The north-facing temples are aligned with the 10,023-foot summit of Haleakalā, realm of Kū, god of war. Whether they were used for human sacrifice he can’t say, but they certainly weren’t agricultural temples.

The heiau in Kaupō follow the same pattern as those in Kahikinui, but the one in which we’re standing is an exception. It faces west. Why is not clear. “It may be because it’s near the boundary of Kaupō to Kahikinui,” Kirch says. “It may have something to do with facing the next moku, kind of like a boundary marker—like a ‘this is our moku, stay away’ kind of thing.”

From the upper court of the heiau, we can see a hazy Hawai‘i Island in the distance and thousands of whitecaps on the ‘Alenuihāhā channel between islands. The wind buffets us as we talk. After Kirch drops me off at the gate to the ranch, where my car is parked, he will head back to the dig. Soon it will be quitting time, and all of the archaeologists will return to the simple, off-the-grid cabin where they’re staying. When the sun goes down, they will sit on the lānai, drinking beer and talking story. Maybe they’ll talk about the day’s work, about the ancient past, about the politics of museums and universities. If the sky is clear they will probably gaze at the stars in the spectacularly black Kaupō sky, imagine Nu‘u’s ancient farmers once gazing into the same sky, and simply revel in the wonder of it all. HH