Landscape Archaeology in Kalaupapa, Moloka'i
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Professor Patrick V. Kirch
Archaeological Research Facility
2251 College Ave.
University of California, Berkeley Berkeley, CA 94720
Great wall of Kalaupapa

Landscape Archaeology in Kalaupapa, Moloka'i, Hawaiian Islands
by Patrick V. Kirch
(in .pdf

Jutting into the turbulent Pacific waters from the forbidding, cliff-bound coast of northern Moloka'i Island, the Kalaupapa Peninsula is famous (or infamous) as the site of the leprosy (Hanson’s disease) settlement established in the 1860s by the Kingdom of Hawai’i. However, Kalaupapa and the adjacent valleys of Wai’ale’ia and Waikolu—which together comprise the Kalaupapa National Historical Park—are also remarkable for an incredible diversity and richness of archaeological sites. The Kalaupapa region was home to a large population of Native Hawaiians during pre-contact and early historic times, who carried out intensive dryland cultivation of sweet potatoes on the peninsula, and irrigated pondfield cultivation of taro in the valleys. The remains of these agricultural systems, along with numerous house sites, heiau (temple) foundations, and other kinds of sites can be found throughout the Park.

Despite a pioneering survey of heiau sites in 1909 by J. F. G. Stokes of the Bishop Museum, the archaeological resources of the Kalaupapa were largely ignored until recently. A survey of parts of the peninsula by Gary Somers of the National Park Service indicated considerable potential for archaeological studies, and limited cultural resources management projects had provided information on a few sites. In August of 2000, an OAL team headed by Prof. Kirch spent three weeks in the Park carrying out a reconnaissance survey of selected sample areas, ranging from Waikolu Valley to the Nihoa landshelf. Approximately 100 archaeological sites were discovered and recorded in these sample areas, verifying the great variability in the archaeological landscapes of the Kalaupapa region. Several major heiau were also remapped in detail.

In addition to the survey work, the OAL team studied a stratified pondfield irrigation complex at the mouth of Waikolu Valley, obtaining a radiocarbon date of A.D. 1240-1280 (calibrated) from charcoal in a buried cultivation layer. Our team also resampled the Kaupikiawa Rockshelter site, originally excavated by Richard Pearson of the University of Hawaii in 1966-67. New radiocarbon dates suggest that this shelter was first occupied about 670-550 years ago (B.P., calibrated).

A limited edition report on the 2000 OAL Kalaupapa project has been published; for copies, while available, contact the OAL directly. (P. V. Kirch et al., 2002, From the ‘Cliffs of Keolewa’ to the ‘Sea of Papaloa’: An Archaeological Reconnaissance of Portions of the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Moloka'i, Hawaiian Islands. Oceanic Archaeology Laboratory, Special Publication No. 2. Berkeley: Archaeological Research Facility.)

A second phase of archaeological research at Kalaupapa began during the summer of 2002, under the direction of OAL PhD student Mark McCoy, and will form the basis for McCoy’s doctoral research (see below).
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Kalaupapa Peninsula Archaeological Project
Mark McCoy

Until recently, little was known concerning the pre-contact history of the Kalaupapa region or the form, extent, and chronology of the expansive Kalaupapa field system. Following an initial study by an OAL team led by Prof. Kirch, subsequent field seasons in 2002, 2003, and 2004 have been aimed at addressing these gaps in our knowledge through intensive survey and limited test excavations. This research - directed by PhD candidate Mark McCoy - focuses specifically on the development of the three communities that shared the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Future work will include the analysis of archaeological materials, radiocarbon dating materials recovered, and the development of a geographic information system (GIS) model.

Progress Summary and Future Plans
Thanks to crews of volunteer field archaeologists and the support of National Park Service, over 60 new sites have been uncovered and recorded, limited test excavations have been undertaken at a number of these sites, and many of the region’s principal ritual sites have been mapped and recorded in detail. The park has also provided access to their growing body of aerial photographs and valuable archival material including Mahele land claim records. In turn, preliminary findings presented at local and national academic meetings - as well as in public outreach community talks - will soon be supplemented with two upcoming publications. At the behest of the National Park Service, McCoy has written a report summarizing our current knowledge of the archaeology of the area (McCoy in press). More recently, a pamphlet for the public on the archaeology of the region is underway thanks to a generous grant from the Arizona Memorial Museum Association (

Kalaupapa Field Walls: Low stone field plot walls of the Kalaupapa Field System. Note Kalaupapa Lighthouse on the horizon.

Due to the excellent state of preservation of the archaeological record, the vast majority of features found on survey are agricultural plots – most defined by rows of low walls designed to protect plants from the dominant northeastern winds that sweep across the landscape. However, to understand the historical context in which agricultural practices expanded and intensified it is first necessary to recognize variation in the natural environment that created opportunities and constraints for development. In the 2003 season over 100 soil samples were taken for soil nutrients analysis. To assess soil fertility, this data will be supplemented by studies of soil salinity, local tradewinds patterns, and existing data on the environment and climate - including records of weather observations that stretch back nearly 100 years.

At the time of writing, the project’s third field season has just been completed. Work will now begin analyzing the material collected including a lithic technology study that will guide extensive “sourcing” of basalt artifacts utilizing non-destructive X-ray florescence (XRF). In addition, work will continue on the development of a geographic information system (GIS) based model incorporating archival, archaeological, and environmental data.
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Photos courtesy of Mark McCoy.