It’s hard to imagine the barren landscape of Kahikinui and Kaupo in Southeast Maui being home to a large population, but that’s how it was for hundreds of years as Native Hawaiian farmers transformed a region into what has been described as the greatest continuous zone of dryland planting in the Hawaiian Islands.
The vast, wind-swept region that lies in the rain shadow of Haleakala was left for cattle ranchers after the last of the indigenous occupants in Kahikinui, by then reduced in number from disease and out-migration, had abandoned their home sites and sweet potato fields by the 1890s.
It was this lonely landscape, undisturbed by modern development, that lured archaeologist Patrick Kirch and his students to the area.
“Kahikinui is just about as dry as you can get. It’s pretty harsh. But the place is covered in archaeological sites. It was a pretty dense population,” Kirch said.
In his latest book, “Heiau, ‘Aina, Lani: The Hawaiian Temple System in Ancient Kahikinui and Kaupo, Maui” (University of Hawai‘i Press), Kirch and co-author Clive Ruggles describe nearly two decades of research in which he, his students and research associates rediscovered the remains of 78 temples.
Born and reared in Manoa, Kirch, now a University of Hawaii anthropology professor, was familiar with the area because as a teenager he had joined a Bishop Museum team to study Kahikinui in 1966.
The project was the first settlement-pattern survey in Hawaii, recording more than 500 archaeological sites over a two-month field season. Peter Chapman led the survey but became ill and never completed his Stanford dissertation on the results.
Kirch went on to become head of archaeology at the Bishop Museum and a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley. Along the way, he became a leading expert on Hawaiian and Polynesian archaeology and the author of 20 books.
‘A long-term project’
Having never thrown away the data from the 1966 survey, Kirch thought for years about returning to Kahikinui to finish the work started back then.
While doing field research for one of his books, he and his wife drove into Kahikinui in 1994 and met the Hawaiians of Ka ‘Ohana o Kahikinui, who were occupying the ruins of St. Ynes Church as part of a campaign to get the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to open up the land again to Hawaiian habitation.
Kirch decided then and there that Maui would be his next project. And he would end up showing the DHHL board ancient habitation sites and heiau there during a site visit. The board eventually agreed to a program allowing 99-year leases on 20-acre lots for those who wanted to live off the grid.
Meanwhile, Kirch and his students developed close friendships with the Hawaiian families in the area who helped them search out archaeological sites and clear them of thorny lantana.
“Initially I thought I would be able to accomplish my goals in just two or three field sessions, but each time I was drawn more deeply into that dramatic landscape. The more I learned, the more new questions arose,” Kirch wrote in his 2015 book, “Unearthing the Polynesian Past.”
“It took a year to get organized,” Kirch said in a recent interview. “But in ’95 I began working in Kahikinui, and it led to 20 years of work there, several National Science Foundation grants, and I ended up having four Ph.D. students write doctoral dissertations on aspects of the work out there — a long-term project.”
Vital role in society
By 1400, four centuries after the archipelago was discovered by Polynesian voyagers, the Hawaiian population was well established in the most ecologically favorable regions, especially valleys with permanent streams for irrigation.
The population then began to expand into the drier leeward areas, including the slopes of Kahikinui and Kaupo. Although not as fertile, the volcanic soil of these leeward slopes produced decent yields of sweet potato and dryland taro. This not only allowed the population to grow, Kirch said, but provided a surplus the chiefs could use to fuel their political aspirations.
In his latest book, Kirch describes and maps all 78 temples in great detail, using a variety of old and new field methods and technologies. These included hand surveying with a magnetic compass, a clinometer for measuring elevation and slope, centuries-old plane-table mapping and electronic/optical theodolite total station instruments.
“This book isn’t meant for a Saturday afternoon read. Some of my books are, but this one is pretty dense,” he said.
The study of heiau dropped out of favor in the second half of the 20th century as radiocarbon dating was introduced and archaeologists turned to excavation of artifacts to reveal settlement patterns.
“Heiau began to take a back seat, and this has been the case throughout the last 40 or 50 years. In general, people stopped studying heiau, so it’s kind of odd. One of the aims we have of this book is to put heiau back at the center of Hawaiian archaeology. They are absolutely critical to understanding Hawaiian culture and society,” Kirch said.
In use until 1819, when the kapu system ended, the heiau of Southeast Maui don’t fit into one pattern, and vary in size and shape. Some are square or U-shaped enclosures; others, elongated double enclosures. There are platform or terraced heiau and fishing and agricultural shrines, as well as a notched panana, or “sighting wall,” that was possibly used for star navigation.
Kirch said an updated and more precise dating system using corals revealed that most of the heiau were built between 1550 to 1700, a period when the Maui kingdom was consolidated under Piilani and his son, Kiha.
Test pits within the heiau revealed various kinds of “male-craft” activities, he said. Fishhooks and worked bone, basalt preforms and finished adze were common.
“There’s no separation between the religion and the economy. It’s all tied together,” he said.
Kirch said the heiau were important places for passing down orders to the people and for organizing utilization of the agricultural landscape.
The orientation of the heiau were significant, he said, and the study produced digitally generated horizon profiles to study their placement in relation to the sky.
“We think they were choosing locations for the view that they see from that site,” he said.
The Hawaiians used the stars not only for navigation, but for what they could tell them about the planting season, he said.
Lots of heiau were found to be oriented to the rising of Makalii (Pleiades) constellation and may have been dedicated to the god Lono. The rising of Makalii was the sign observed by the priests to mark the beginning of the makahiki season, sacred to Lono. As the deity of dryland agriculture and the sweet potato, Lono was important in these areas, he said.
A number of heiau were oriented to the north, pointing to the rim of Haleakala, and may have been dedicated to the war god Ku. The highlands were the realm of Ku, source of koa logs for canoes and the red and yellow feathers for capes and cloaks. Many of these north-facing heiau were not exactly true north, he said, but were oriented to a big, red cinder cone sitting on a ridgeline.
The Hawaiian calendar was a lunar calendar, essential for planting and fishing, and it was important to calibrate that calendar to keep it in sync with the solar year, Kirch said. The first visibility of Makalii at sunset was the sign used by the priests to determine the onset of the four-month-long makahiki season in the fall.
The summer season in Kahikinui and Kaupo is extremely dry.
“It was absolutely essential to keep your lunar calendar in sync,” Kirch said. “You have to have your sweet potato planting calibrated really quite precisely when you know your Kona rains will come, have your meals prepared and so on. This calendar is essential.”
The population of Kahikinui and Kaupo eventually dwindled due to disease and out-migration. But the final blow in Kahikinui, Kirch said, came from the leasing of land by the Hawaiian government to a rancher named Pico, who ran a herd of several thousand cattle over the landscape, trampling the sweet potato fields of the Hawaiian farmers.
While Kirch’s research in Kahikinui and Kaupo has pretty much come to an end, he said the area still contains a treasure trove of archaeological sites worth exploring.