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After the first few rungs, I leave behind the period after Captain James Cook landed on Kauai in January 1778, the first European known to have visited Hawaii.

Natives and tourists had long known about Makauwahi Cave, but it was Burney who, in August 1992, first grasped its significance for understanding Hawaii’s long and varied history, when he, Lida, and researchers Storrs Olson and Helen James from the Smithsonian Institution stumbled on the site while on vacation.

He typically locates them at the periphery of the sinkhole, against the cave’s walls, where the stratigraphy is clearer.

He motions to me to clamber down a 20-foot aluminum ladder and gives me a history lesson as I descend.

Paleoecologists and archaeologists working there, surrounded by the high, ancient limestone walls, are beginning to read that record.

Wedged in a crease of hills just above a long white-sand beach favored by sailboarders, the sinkhole sits in a setting so picturesque that Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow leaped off the lip of one of its high cliffs in the recent .

There, everything from a 352,000-year-old lava flow to a Styrofoam cup washed in during a recent hurricane has been preserved.


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