Native Intelligence: Kaua‘i

Time Travel

Story by Helen Raine. Photos by Mike Coots.

Makauwahi cave on Kaua‘i is a vital link to Hawai‘i’s history, and Chris Landreau, archaeologist and owner of Ancient Kaua‘i Excursions, can explain why. But first he has to get everyone inside. That’s a challenge—the cave has no roof, and its entrance is a low tunnel. Landreau lays down cardboard and his guests crawl in. He grins at the “oh wows” when they see rare native palms growing against the limestone walls. But there’s more than just

natural beauty, Landreau says. The first test bore conducted here yielded the colossal talon of an extinct bird-hunting owl. “That was just the beginning,” Landreau says.“In the layers of sediment, archaeologists found the bones of extinct flightless ducks.” Buried beneath the cave floor, too, is the story of the area’s first settlers: fishhooks, octopus lures and shell jewelry preserved in a natural time capsule.

Back outside the cave, Landreau leads the group to a picnic table under a stand of milo trees. Some of the proceeds from the tours help the nonprofit Makauwahi Cave Reserve to restore this area from weedy scrubland to native lowland forest. Over a breakfast of loco moco, Landreau says that the inspiration for Ancient Kaua‘i Excursions came from his desire to share information about Hawaiian sites that people just weren’t noticing, like a pile of stones that’s actually a heiau (temple) or a path that Hawaiians once used as a trading route.

At a site called Kiahuna, Landreau evokes a Hawaiian village from what looks like a moonscape. Some of the taro terraces here have disappeared under development projects, but others are easy to spot once Landreau shows you where to look. “I’m the kind of archaeologist who wants to be on sites where the ordinary people lived, and this is one,” says Landreau. At each site on his tours—the cave, Kāneiolouma in Po‘ipū and Kiahuna—Landreau teaches others to read the messages the Hawaiians left in the landscape. “Hawaiians lived off the land, hunting, fishing and farming. But they had a population almost the same size as that of Kaua‘i today. They farmed in a productive, sustainable way so that resources persisted year after year. That’s quite a feat.”