Abstract: Coring and excavations in a large sinkhole and cave system formed in an eolianite deposit on the south coast of Kaua‘i in the Hawaiian Islands reveal a fossil site with remarkable preservation and diversity of plant and animal remains. Radiocarbon dating and investigations of the sediments and their fossil contents, including diatoms, invertebrate shells, vertebrate bones, pollen, and plant macrofossils, provide a more complete picture of prehuman ecological conditions in the Hawaiian lowlands than has been previously available. The evidence confirms that a highly diverse prehuman landscape has been completely transformed, with the decline or extirpation of most native species and their replacement with introduced species.
The stratigraphy documents many late Holocene extinctions, including previously undescribed species, and suggests that the pattern of extirpation for snails occurred in three temporal stages, corresponding to initial settlement, late prehistoric, and historic impacts. The site also records land-use changes of recent centuries, including evidence for deforestation, overgrazing, and soil erosion during the historic period, and biological invasion during both the Polynesian and historic periods. Human artifacts and midden materials demonstrate a high-density human presence near the site for the last four centuries. Earlier evidence for humans includes a bone of the prehistorically introduced Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) dating to 822 yr BP (calendar year [cal yr] AD 1039–1241).
Vegetation at the site before human arrival consisted of a herbaceous component with strand plants and graminoids, and a woody component that included trees and shrubs now mostly restricted to a few higher, wetter, and less disturbed parts of the island. Efforts to restore lowland areas in the Hawaiian Islands must take into account the evidence from this study that the prehuman lowlands of dry leeward Kaua‘i included plants and animals previously known only in wetter and cooler habitats. Many species may be restricted to high elevations today primarily because these remote locations have, by virtue of their difficult topography and climate, resisted most human-induced changes more effectively than the coastal lowlands.