Kalaupapa Peninsula Archaeological Project

       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 Kirch, I conducted field research in 2002, 2003, and 2004 aimed at addressing these gaps in our knowledge through intensive survey and limited test excavations. This research focuses specifically on the development of the three communities that shared the Kalaupapa Peninsula.        

        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. 
        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. Below I describe material studies on lithic technology study including extensive “sourcing” of basalt artifacts utilizing non-destructive X-ray florescence (EDXRF).


Changes in Daily Life In Prehistoric Hawaii

Recent ecological research has likened the isolated Hawaiian Islands to a “model system,” or ideal environment, for studying changes on multiple temporal and spatial scales. Due to its place in social classification schemes - ranging from “complex chiefdom” to “incipient” or “archaic state” - anthropological archaeologists have long recognized similar heuristic value in studying social organization in Hawai‘i.




Stone wall marking the boundary between two communities.


The Kalaupapa Peninsula - naturally isolated by massive cliffs and protected from modern development - has one of the best preserved archaeological records in the Hawaiian Islands.


Archaeologists working at one of the many small shelters located on the peninsula uncover a stone lined hearth (left to right, Jonathan Carpenter, Calum Wilkenson (back), and Mark McCoy). 


Stone artifacts recovered from archaeological sites in Kalaupapa. Upper left, shaped stone disks for the traditional Hawaiian bowling game (ulu maika); upper right, a sinker; lower left, small stone lamp; lower right, several whole adzes.


In a recent study centered on reconstructing daily life, flaked stone left over from creating or repairing tools was subject to EDXRF analysis – a non-destructive method of determining the trace chemical composition of the stone – in the hopes of locating the place where raw material was quarried.



Archaeologists hiking on a local boulder beach to conduct research on the isolated Nihoa land-shelf west of the peninsula.


Over half of the artifacts tested were matched to a local boulder beach at Awahua Bay on the western side of the peninsula.


A Geographic Information Systems (GIS) generated map showing the frequency of Awahua Bay basalt stone artifacts at sites and the location of traditional community boundaries.


A simple spatial analysis shows a linear relationship between the frequency of artifacts at sites and distance from the source that is consistent with direct access to raw material. Thus, it appears that in this aspect of people’s everyday lives, local community territory boundaries were not as important as archaeologists have sometimes assumed.