Makauwahi: Eyes on the Smoke of History at Kaua'i's Cave

Five and a half million years ago, Ha'upu mountain was the molten heart of a new caldera. Kipukai was  another erupting core.  When the oceanic plate shifted, and the hotspot venting lava with it, Waialeale became the active volcano, and Ha'upu began to succumb to the wind and waves. Two million years later, as the volcanic activity settled down, pu'u-- or small cinder cones-- erupted from the volcanic plain all around.

Enormous sand dunes piled up on the south shore of Kaua'i, in the wet shadow of Ha'upu-- no longer a living volcano.  The years layered the soft round sand, and the rain leached the minerals out.
The dunes lithified into limestone. Ribbons of minerals twined under the sand: olivine and silicates. Cathedrals beneath the hard packed mineral protected hollows full of ancient ocean sand.

Ice ages came and went-- the polar ice caps grew and froze the earth's water. Water leaching through the limestone formed intricate stalactites under lithified sand dunes. Sea levels dropped: ten thousand years passed-- the ice caps melted. The sea levels rose and waves plowed through lava tubes under the limestone. Fresh water from the water table mixed with the salt water in underground caverns.

The water shot through lua-- holes-- in the roof of an enormous lithified cathedral below the dunes. The churching water smoothed the roof of the cave-- and finally the roof collapsed, and a brackish lake remained.

Animals and plants were washed into the salty water and preserved.  Seeds were pickled. Layers of silt captured generations of accidental flora and fauna migrations from wind and waves.

About a thousand ago, people arrived. Suddenly ipu (bottle gourds), kukui (candlenut), wauke (mulberry), niu (coconut), mai'a (banana), noni, uala (sweet potato)-- important polynesian plants appear preserved in the layers inside the brackish cave.

At the same time, staggering waves of extinction-- shocking absences-- change the layers. The endemic palm with its tasty-to-rats fruit-- the enormous land ducks and moa--other giant flightless birds disappear. Snails disappear. The moment humans come on the scene, we send out shockwaves of ecological destruction.

About 400 years ago, an enormous tsunami picked up boulders and huge chunks of coral reef forty feet above the sea level and smashed inland. The retreating wave hurled volcanic rocks and scoured the landscape. The megawave mashed back and forth between sea and land. There had been a human settlement between the water and the cave: it was atomized. The human terror that day remains in fragments of beaten tapa, in polished wana tools and hooks.

By the 18th century, the human settlement was rebuilt and called Mahaulepu. Or Māhāʻulepū. The people carved petroglyphs into the half-buried ocean stones-- the images surface now during the summer when the sands wash away. The people bent iron nails from shipwrecks into fish hooks. More people came, and brought goats and more iron. More extinctions ripple through the record.

It was clear that people never lived in the weird swampy cave. Their detritus washed in and accumulated accidentally.

But  even though the place was never for habitation, it was important to the people. A holy man named Keahikuni had a platform inside. People would crawl through the narrow entrance to the cave and wade through the water and bring him offerings. Keahikuni built ritual fires and read the smoke that swirled in the unusual trade-winds and cave eddies. He used highly polished basalt "mirrors"-- slabs of black volcanic rock painstakingly smoothed to a shine. Water could be carefully pooled on the surface, and the mysteriously distorted reflections read as a portal to the other world. His work there gave the place its name: Maka Uwahi-- Eyes on smoke.

Keahikuni's bones were denuded and secreted into the high cave walls, with many other ali'i. And in the center of the cave, an unusual limestone formation gave the who area its name: a 20 foot tall stone like a lingam-- he maha ule pu-- the foreskin of the flaccid penis-- or the head of the squid penis.

Today, grants and volunteers sustain the ongoing archeological research. An extensive garden of seeds recovered from the dig is guarded by sleepy baby boomer tortoises (whose gentle grazing mimics the work of the extinct moa that co-evolved with the threatened plants) and a mala (garden) of polynesian canoe plants and lo'i of cultivated taro reflects the work of a thousand years of Hawaiian cultivation. Archeologists and paleo-ecologists and Hawaiian cultural practitioners and storytellers and volunteers and activists work together to protect the endangered species and the bones, and the archeological and ecological research.

Today when I ducked my head and walked crouching into the cool cave, and saw the textured walls and the carved blow holes and the incandescent cat-eye algae shifting in the light-- it felt like magic. But better than magic: it's a time machine. Makauwahi is a place that allows you to peer 10,000 years back in time, layer by layer of sandstone, wave by wave of human influence. It's a small place, but it tells an enormous story.


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