The Makauwahi Cave (“fear, break through”) is the small portion of the largest limestone cave found in Hawaii.
It lies on the south coast of the island of Kauai, in the Māhāʻulepū Valley close to Māhāʻulepū Beach, and is important for its paleoecological and archaeological values.
It is reached via a sinkhole and has been described as “…maybe the richest fossil site in the Hawaiian Islands, perhaps in the entire Pacific Island region”.
The pale rock ridge that houses the sinkhole started as a field of sand dunes.
Over time, rainwater seeped through the sand, converting it chemically into limestone rock.
Underground water ate away at the lower parts of the limestone, forming an extensive complex of caves, and finally one large section of cave roof collapsed, creating a feature known as a sinkhole.
The feature is as much as 100 yards long from the entrance to the most distant known cave, and as much as 40 yards wide, but it may contain other caverns whose entrances are buried.
Paleoecological and archaeological excavations of the sediment that has filled the pond in the sinkhole put its age at some 10,000 years.
More importantly, the findings show how the first humans that inhabited Kauai affected the pre-human natural environment.
It is one of only a handful of sites in the world that show such impact.
Before the first Polynesian settlers set foot on Kauai, Hawai‘i was a strange Eden, empty of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, because none had ever made it across the vastness of the Pacific to these remote islands.
The sinkhole contains nearly 10,000-years of sedimentary record; since the discovery of Makauwahi as a fossil site, excavations have found pollen, seeds, invertebrate shells and Polynesian artifacts, as well as thousands of bird and fish bones.
An array of native birds that had evolved in splendid isolation filled every kind of niche.
More than 40 species of extinct native bird fossils have been excavated from Makauwahi, including an odd long-legged owl, which specialized in hunting small forest birds, and a nocturnal duck with shrunken eyes.
Among the bones discovered at Makauwahi were those of one lumbering flightless duck with a heavy bill designed to graze like a tortoise on short, tough grass and vegetation from rocks.
Bones of the endangered Hawaiian hawk and Laysan duck have also been discovered at the sinkhole. Today, these two species survive on single islands distant from Kauai, but the fossil discoveries suggest they were once more widespread throughout Hawaii.
Evidence from a full millennium of human activity chronicles the details of life nearby and its considerable impact on the island environment.
The Makauwahi Cave site provides a rich record of life before and after human arrival, and preserves many artifacts and food remains, including perishable cultural items.
Oral traditions said to extend back as far as the fourteenth century in some cases show good agreement with the archaeological and paleoecological record.
Following European contact, additional environmental impacts, including a drastic increase in erosion and many additional biological invasions, are documented from the site.
Paleoecologist David Burney and his wife Lida Pigott Burney, with help from hundreds of local volunteers, has found 10,000-year-old buried treasure in the Makauwahi Cave and wrote a book on the subject, Back to the Future in the Caves of Kauai, A Scientist’s Adventures in the Dark.
Makauwahi Cave is one of the Points of Interest in the Holo Holo Kōloa Scenic Byway. We assisted Mālama Kōloa and Kōloa Community Association with the preparation of the Corridor Management Plan for the Scenic Byway.
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