Now and then, publishers will send over free books to MauiTime, in hopes of getting badly needed publicity. Most are pretty weak. Kua‘aina Kahiko, a new book by Patrick Vinton Kirch, is a refreshing departure from that trend. Published by University of Hawaii Press, the book is a stunning, eminently readable account of Kirch’s 17 years of archaeological research into Maui’s Kahikinui region, located between Ulupalakua and Kaupo.
It’s a part of Maui that Kirch–who was born in the islands–knows very well. Though he’s an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley today, who has spent three decades studying Polynesia, Kirch first discovered Kahikinui as a young Punahou School student when he spent two months there as a volunteer for a Bishop Museum archaeology project.
Though historians believe the first Polynesians to arrive at Hawaii came ashore at Kahikinui, there’s not a lot known or published about the place. In his book, Kirch calls Kahikinui Maui’s “most remote and undeveloped region” and a “classic kua‘aina, a backcountry that was shunned by the ruling chiefs.” It was so isolated, Kirch writes in the book’s Preface, that there were “no rich mo‘olelo, oral traditions, about Kahikinui.” Instead, Kirch writes, “The district was populated largely by maka‘ainana, common folk, who were derided by officials of the nineteenth-century Hawaiian Kingdom as ‘ili ulaula, “red skins,” a reference to their sunburned bodies, reflecting long hours of toil in the sweet potato patches.”
But for archaeological research, Kahikinui presented a great opportunity. Kirch says the region has “thousands” of archaeological sites.
“First and foremost, Kahikinui constituted an entire moku, an ancient political district, which had never suffered from the effects of Westernized “development,” Kirch writes. “Precisely because it is a backwater, lacking in freshwater or rich soils, Kahikinui was spared the effects of sugarcane or pineapple plantations… For the archaeologist, this meant that the settlement pattern–the network of house sites, agricultural fields, shrines, heiau, and other structures built by the ancient Hawaiian occupants of the moku–would still be intact. I could think of few other places in the islands where an entire region could be studied on such a scale.”
A great opportunity, sure, but have you been out to Kahikinui lately? That place is rugged. Even the one paved road that traverses the area sometimes feels like it was last paved around the time Harry Truman was U.S. President. In his book, Kirch says his work there was “challenging,” “physically taxing” and “invariably exhausting.”
Kua‘aina Kahiko isn’t a particularly technical book, full of charts or references to Thorium 230 dating concentrations (if you want the later, check out Kirch’s 2005 article in the journal Science on how he used “coral dedicatory offerings” to date temples in the Kahikinui district). Instead, the book is an extremely detailed, first-person account of nearly two decades of research into one of Maui’s–and Hawaii’s–least known regions. But it’s also not dry history–what happened in Kahikinui three centuries ago is very relevant to island residents today, as Kirch himself discovered while researching the book.
“My work in Kahikinui has had another, pleasurable side thanks to the welcoming group of Native Hawaiian activists who formed Ka ‘Ohana o Kahikinui in the early 1990s,” Kirch writes. “Being able to watch as they fought to gain access to Hawaiian lands, and in a few small ways to aid them in their quest, lent additional meaning to my research. It brought our goal of understanding the ancient history of this land into direct contact with the continuing efforts of the Hawaiian people to preserve and perpetuate their culture.”
Of course, knowledge like this doesn’t come cheap. Kua‘aina Kahiko is a hard-bound book that retails for $49. Considering that Kahikinui is still very much a “backwater” today, it would have been nice for UH Press to release a far cheaper version of the book, so that the residents who would most benefit from its research could get a chance to read it.
Click here for more info on Kua’aina Kahiko.
Photo: Forest & Kim Starr/Wikimedia Commons