Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Time machine reveals Hawaiian prehistory: book

Any archaeological dig by definition takes you back in time, and the years-long studies at the Makauwahi cave and sinkhole at Maha'ulepu on Kaua'i chronicles a few thousand years of history.

David Burney calls the site a “poor man's time machine,” and does a remarkable job supporting that definition in his new book, Back to the Future in the Caves of Kaua'i.

I was struck by his opening lines: “Visitors come to Hawaii seeking paradise, but the truth is, these islands have become a kind of living hell for nature.”

Makauwahi, whose lost name was recovered as part of the investigation, chronicles the descent from a pre-human Hawaiian environment filled with unique forms of wildlife, and surrounded by a dense, diverse native dryland forest.

The initial blow came from the first invasion by humans and the rats they brought with them. Land use practices, and the use of fire helped bring about the initial decline. The arrival of Westerners speeded it up.

Burney did the work with a team of fellow scientists and volunteers, key among them the late archaeologist Bill Kikuchi and Burney's wife, Lida Pigott Burney. He calls his work paleoecology, the study of ancient environmentals through the use of fossil organisms, and Burney adds an overlay of archaeology to study human impacts on the natural environment.

Makauwahi is a stunning natural feature. A limestone shelf, formed by ancient sand dunes hardened into rock, eaten away from within by flowing water, forming deep cave systems. The roof of the largest cave portion has collapsed, creating a wide skylight, with dark caves extending from within it.

Burney found that it was possible to dig down through the wet sediment on the Makauwahi floor and turn the time machine's dial to points in the past.

The surface inches included plastics and beer poptops. A few feet through the Western period, iron fish hooks and goat bones were found. A few more feet through the early Hawaiian period, were canoe parts, shell fishhooks and a basalt mirrror. And then deep into the pre-human past, the bones of strange extinct birds and shells, and the pollen of long-lost forest plants were located.

He found old structure posts inside the cave, indicating its use in early human times, and he tracked down families with their own histories about the use of the cave. He found ancient traditions about the cave. He tracked the debris from a tsunami that helped fill the cave floor, and the silt from surrounding fields that flowed in during floods.

With a remarkable tally from seed and pollen studies of the plants that once existed around here, Burney and Lida Burney launched an ecorestoration effort, planting some of the species that their work proved had once thrived around here.

It's not a perfect restoration. Some of the plants are extinct. In other cases, the exact species can't be determined, so Burney and his team went to similar habitats to identify the most likely near relatives.

That's how the Ni'ihau fan palm, Pritchardia aylmer-robinsonii, came to be planted inside the cave, where it thrives. It might be the same Pritchardia species whose pollen was found in ancient sediments, or not quite. But it's likely close.

The ecological restoration effort is a step—rebuilding the past as opposed to discovering the past--another way of rolling back the clock.

In his summation, Burney recalls his book's opening lines about the environment's destruction by humans: “Wouldn't it be a big relief if we could discover, over the next few critical years, that humans can, in a similar stretch of a few generations, actually stop wiping out the rest of nature while maintaining or even improving the human standard of living.”

The book weaves a number of stories, about the history of the region, about a scientist's inquiries, about a family, and friends, and about how we are changing our planet. It's a good read. Pick it up at your local bookstore, or try the National Tropical Botanical Garden bookstore or other online resources.

Back to the Future in the Caves of Kaua'i: A Scientist's Adventures in the Dark, by David A. Burney, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2010, 198 pages, hardcover, $28.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

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