Lānaʻi was under the control of nearby Maui before written history. Its first inhabitants may have arrived as late as the 15th century.
The first people to migrate here, most likely from Maui and Molokaʻi, probably established fishing villages along the coast, initially; but later branched out into the interior where they raised taro in the fertile volcanic soil.
Lānaʻi was first seen by Europeans in February 25, 1779, when Captain Charles Clarke sighted the island from aboard James Cook’s HMS Resolution. Clarke had taken command of the ship after Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay on February 14 and was leaving the islands for the North Pacific.
Kaunolū Village is located on the south coast of the island of Lānaʻi. This former fishing village, abandoned in the 1880s, is the Island’s largest surviving ruins of a prehistoric Hawaiian village.
Old house foundations, terraces and petroglyphs are found at Kaunolū along with the remains of an ancient sacred area called Halulu Heiau, high on the edge of a cliff above the bay.
The archaeological site is very well-preserved and covers almost every phase of Hawaiian culture. It was designated a US National Historic Landmark in 1962 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
The site consists of two historical villages straddling Kaunolū Gulch, a dry stream bed subject to occasional flash floods after rainstorms at higher elevations. The village on the western side was named Kaunolū; the one on the eastern side was called Keāliakapu.
The land is parched, with little fresh water, but the sheltered bay at the end of the gulch offers access to rich fishing in the deep seas below the high cliffs along the south coast of the island. Ancient Hawaiian bone lures used to troll for pelagic fish were found in Ulaula Cave, a small lava tube near the village.
After Kamehameha had conquered all the islands, he visited the village of Kaunolū to fish and sport. His residence was on the bluff which forms the east side of the bay, overlooking the village, the heiau and the bay.
Between 1778 and 1810, he is said to have held ceremonies at this heiau. During the late 18th century, Maui high chief Kahekili, a rival of Kamehameha, also used to visit here.
One of Kahekili’s many legendary feats was performed through the ancient Hawaiian sport of lele kawa (to leap feet first from a cliff into water without splashing.)
Northwest of the heiau there is a natural stone wall running along the sea cliff. Near the cliff’s edge, there is a break in the wall (called Kahekili’s Leap) and a steep 80-foot drop.
Kahekili was a formidable competitor and reportedly demanded his warriors follow his lead and ordered them to dive into the sea below to prove their courage.