A road repair project on Kahekili Highway is pending while officials decide how best to protect a nearby burial site thought to contain multiple human remains.
On Wednesday, project coordinators discussed the site with the Maui Lanai Islands Burial Council, which plans to make a decision on a burial treatment plan next month.
"The issue of ancestral bones is going to become more relevant as more development takes place on this island," council Chairwoman Kapulani Antonio said. "We understand that the land is for the living, but we also have to respect our ancestral kupuna."
In 2010, the county Department of Public Works planned to reconstruct and resurface pavement on about 1,100 feet of Kahekili Highway, when a resident alerted project coordinators to a burial site in the area, project archaeologist Erik Fredericksen said.
A survey confirmed a cave located west of the highway near Kahakuloa, according to a public burial notice. Vegetation shrouded the cave, and a resident-constructed, dry-laid rock wall protected its entrance, Fredericksen said. Not wanting to disturb the wall, surveyors did not investigate the interior but could see what appeared to be redwood fragments through a small gap in the cave.
"According to (a resident), there are several burials inside," Fredericksen said. He could not see the remains, but he said it's typical in these types of investigations to rely on community testimony.
Surveyors were unable to tell the size of the cave from the outside. Compared to other burial sites he's seen, this one wasn't out of the ordinary, Fredericksen said. Based on information gathered from community members, he said the cave is most likely more than 100 years old.
"Usually in situations like this, we're talking about the 1800s," he said. "Because after (foreign) contact, in the 1900s, more people tended to bury in cemeteries."
In the Mahele, two Land Commission awards in the vicinity of the planned roadwork were granted to Makaai and Kahakamano, according to the burial notice.
"We know that Kahakuloa was an old village, so of course there would be burials," Antonio said.
While searching the surrounding area, surveyors also found a rock shelter overhang, but no distinctive markings were found on the rocks and testing showed that soil in the area was very shallow. The rocks wouldn't have been suitable for petroglyphs because they crumble easily, Fredericksen said.
Hinano Rodrigues, culture and history branch chief of the State Historic Preservation Division, requested that, in the interest of cultural sensitivity, the exact location of the burial site be withheld to protect it from being disturbed.
Wendy Kobashigawa, civil engineer with the Public Works Department, said the burial site did not delay the project because the county has been in the planning process over the past few years. Once the project begins, it's estimated to take about six to eight months, she said.
The road needs repair, explained civil engineering consultant Garrett Tokuoka, pointing to pictures of soil being pulled out from under the pavement.
"On portions of the road, it's pretty damaged," he said. "What happens is everything just starts sagging and pulling apart."
Project coordinators told the council about the burial site a few years ago but wanted to reinform the council since members have changed since then.
Previous burial council members were concerned that vibrations from the construction would damage the surrounding land, Fredericksen said. Plans call for a reinforcing wall with 20-foot-deep anchors, but Fredericksen said the work is far enough away from the burial site to leave it undisturbed.
The site is within a county right-of-way, but there are no plans to do work in the area of the site. The initial proposal of the burial treatment plan, which Fredericksen said will be submitted shortly, is to place a buffer 20 feet in diameter around the site.
Haiku resident Dana Naone Hall, a former burial council member and the only public testifier on Wednesday, asked for a larger buffer, which Fredericksen said wouldn't be a problem.
The only other response so far to the site has been a phone call Rodrigues said he received from an 82-year-old woman who said to "leave it there, don't disturb anybody."
Discussing the wall at the cave entrance, council members said they wanted to hear more mana'o from residents on whether more permanent protection for the entrance will be needed. No one has come forward with this type of request, council members said, adding that community members clearly wanted the current wall since they built it.
The burial council will decide at its Feb. 17 meeting what action to take on the burial treatment plan, then make a recommendation for the State Historic Preservation Division, Rodrigues said.
The county and state are requesting that anybody with information on the identity or history of these burials immediately contact Rodrigues at 243-4640 or send email to
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at email@example.com.