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Kawela Archeology Site Among Earliest in Hawaii

By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor

Photo courtesy of Marshall Weisler.

An archeological site in Kawela has recently been found to be one of the earliest known habitations in the Hawaiian Islands. Originally excavated in 1981, the Kawela Mound site has benefitted from advances in technology, radiocarbon dating and sample methods that have led archologist Marshall Weisler — who has been studying Molokai historic sites for nearly 50 years – to some groundbreaking conclusions. 

“At the time [1981], I thought the site was about 500 years old based on two radiocarbon dates processed soon after the excavations,” said Weisler. “However, dating techniques have greatly improved over the years and I redated the site using another 19 samples. The results were very surprising, since the site is now one of the very oldest habitations in the entire Hawaiian Islands, with dates as early as about 900 years ago.”

He continued, “There are there are a group of sites that we call early sites [across Hawaii] and these dates to about the 1300s, 1400s. But the bottom of the Kawela Mound dates to about the 1100s, up until the early 1200s. That’s the earliest layer in the site. So that’s one of the most comprehensively dated habitation area in the whole Hawaiian Islands.”

He said what is especially noteworthy is Kawela’s leeward location in relation to what archeologists previously presumed about Hawaii’s earliest settlements. 

“This is important not just for the old dates, but to show that Hawaiians were occupying even the drier leeward areas at this early time of first colonization,” he explained. “Most archaeologists believe that the windward sides of islands, with ample fresh water and nutrient-rich soils for agriculture, were the first places settled. The Kawela Mound shows that this is not always the case.”

Based on previous assumptions, he said Molokai’s lush northern coastline from Waikolu to Halawa would point to the most likely early habitations. 

“There may well be, but so far we don’t have that information. We don’t have really early dated sites in those windward valleys,” he said. “So I got to thinking, what are people doing on a dry, leeward coastline on Molokai? …It’s completely opposite of what we would expect. So I thought about it some more and came up with a variation on the perceived wisdom.”

Though he pointed out there are likely many sites still yet to be discovered across Hawaii, Weisler said thousands of archeological sites have already been recorded and not many date to a period as early as Kawela. 

“These are very rare sites, not just in Hawaii, but any island group you go to throughout Polynesia — there’s very few sites that date to this early time,” he said. 

The evidence found in Kawela Mound, located alongside Kamehameha V Highway at the base of Onioni Drive, shows that hundreds of years ago, Kawela Stream was thriving and full of ample water sources in the area. 

“Less than a five minute walk to the east, there’s Kakahai’a Pond, which in the past was a series of springs that fed a marshy area, which is just absolutely perfect for growing taro, and on the margins of the marsh, sweet potato. So it was perfect,” Weisler said. “And that marsh was a magnet for all kinds of birds, especially migrating birds, sea birds, marsh-type birds. There’s evidence of all those birds in the low, sandy mound that’s right at the highway there.”

Weisler describes the site as “habitation mound,” meaning an area where people lived, rather than a burial site. Archeologists did find fragments of bone and isolated human teeth. They also found one intact burial of an infant. But the majority of evidence indicated it wasn’t primarily for iwi burial. 

“It’s where people lived and there are tens of thousands of bones of fish,” he said. “There are hundreds of bones of pig, dog, chicken, nene, other birds, urchins. It’s loaded with food and there’s imu, there’s earth ovens…. There’s post molds where houses used to be. There’s other kinds of fireplaces. There’s evidence that people were making stone tools like adzes, the typical kind of woodworking tool. There’s stone flakes that are used for scraping and cutting…. And so everything in that site tells us that it was a habitation area.”

He said each layer of the mound tells a different story of its time period. 

“It’s about 10 feet deep of stratified layers, like the last birthday cake you had. You look at those layers and inside those layers is the evidence of people living on the landscape, and that’s an incredible time capsule, because it’s not only tells us about people, but it tells us about the environment.”

Wana, crabs and various shellfish were found in the mound. Hiwiwai, a freshwater shellfish that only live in fast-moving streams, were also plentiful, evidence of Kawela Stream’s thriving ecosystem. 

“There’s also a kind of pipipi… not the kind you find on kind of wave splashed rocks, but it’s a brackish water kind of pipipi and that will only live where there’s a brackish water environment and that was formed by Kawela Stream and its outflow meeting the sea,” he said. 

In addition to marine life, archeologists also found the remains of larger animals. 

“There were more than 300 bones of medium mammal, the most in the site, which are likely from pig and dog, documenting a marked increase in consumption of these commensals and suggesting some level of animal husbandry,” reads the paper of his findings, which was recently published in the Journal of Island and Coastal Archeology.  

“Because the site dates about 800 years ago and was continuously occupied, we have eight centuries of a time capsule telling us what people were doing on the landscape, how the landscape was changing,” said Weisler. “So it’s really a fantastic site. We’ve been studying the contents of that site on and off for the last four decades.”

Weisler said one of the most interesting discoveries of early habitations across the eastern Pacific, from New Zealand to Rapanui and Hawaii, is that they all date to within about a century of each other. 

“The really remarkable, fascinating thing — one of many — is that you have Polynesians literally blasting all over the eastern part of Polynesia and settling all these islands that are thousands of miles apart. They’re settling them all within the same couple of human generations. It’s astounding… it’s the most incredible over water migration in the whole history of humans,” said Weisler. “And part of that story, now, is this Kawela Mound site.”


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