Finding human bones at the beach

On a recent trip to the beach one man found something he wasn’t even looking for – no, not true love at first sight, but part of a Native Hawaiian skeleton.

Human bones and historic Hawaiian burials have been found all over the island, in construction sites, at beaches and in backyards.

X-ray technologist Alan Patriani, a resident of Kaua’i for about seven years, was at Ke’e Beach just after Christmas, when he noticed a couple of younger visitors playing in the roots of a tree near the path that leads to the beach.

Patriani said he had a feeling to ask the kids what they were up to. They said they were checking out some dog bones. Patriani got a small brush from his Jeep and started brushing away the excess sand.

“I felt like I was in a scene on The Learning Channel,” Patriani said. He exposed a long bone with a femoral head still connected to an intact pelvis. Patriani knew the femur is the longest bone in the human body, and the bone structure would tell him if they came from a person or an animal.

“I never picked up any bad or negative vibes, like this was a recent murder or foul play occurrence,” he said.

Patriani called 9-1-1, and made a report with Officer Caspillo, who called for an anthropologist to assess the site. Later that night, police confirmed that it was an ancient burial find.

“I have walked down that path by that tree numerous times along with hundreds of thousands of people, and never saw it. I truly believe that with my working knowledge of bones and human anatomy, I was supposed to be there and help this ancient one be brought back into the light,” Patriani added.

State Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Nancy McMahon, Kaua’i district archaeologist, confirmed that the bones at Ke’e beach were ancient.

Finding bones just proves that the Hawaiians were here, said La France Kapaka-Arboleda, chairwoman of the Kaua’i-Ni’ihau Burial Council, under the DLNR. The Burial Council is in charge of reinterring bones found inadvertently or during construction projects. With a GPS (global positioning system) unit, the group is mapping locations of grave sites and bones previously found, to prevent against digging them up again.

In the past year or two, bones have been found by the State Department of Transportation in the Waika’ea Canal widening project in Kapa’a, and by beachgoers at Kealia, Maha’ulepu and Ke’e. Bones have also been found by Sandwich Isles Communications along Kuhio Highway in the federal Rural Utility Service project to install fiber optic communications cables.

“There’s a protocol in place for archeologists and the community,” said Mike Dega, senior archeologist at the O’ahu-based Scientific Consultants Services, which monitors construction jobsites around the state, including the fiber optics project.

In construction projects, a cultural survey is done to determine whether workers are likely to uncover artifacts. If a bone or bone fragment is found, the monitoring archaeologist halts everything to study the piece. The archeologist files a report with police department in case workers uncover a crime scene.

If they are indeed ancient Hawaiian bones, they are set aside and later placed in an undisclosed cemetery location within the ahupua’a (Hawaiian land division from the mountains to the ocean) in which they were found.

Hawaiians generally created burial sites where they lived, near the coastline. Large numbers of bones and skeletons in certain areas proves where settlements were located. For one, Kapa’a is as well populated as it is today as it was in historic times, Kapaka-Arboleda said. The odds of finding bones in construction areas is high, but with continued construction, bones can get damaged. With any kind of ground penetration there is a risk of not finding all the parts (of a skeleton) in the future, she added.

“We (the Burial Council) have no choice but to remove them because if they are left there they will be subject to further desecration,” she said.

The “cultural protocol” upon relocating bones to a new burial site is to ask the Hawaiian ancestors for forgiveness that they have not been able to lie in their graves and disintegrate naturally, and to thank them for the opportunity we have to go through the natural process, Kapaka-Arboleda said.

Staff Writer Kendyce Manguchei can be reached at or 245-3681 (ext. 252).


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