Pacific Science, vol. 63, no. 4 (2009): Archaeology and Historical Ecology in the Pacific Basin

Guest editors: Scott M. Fitzpatrick and Michiko Intoh

Introduction: Archaeology and Historical Ecology in the Pacific Basin
Scott M. Fitzpatrick and Michiko Intoh, 463-464

On the Rat Trail in Near Oceania: Applying the Commensal Model to the Question of the Lapita Colonization
E. Matisoo-Smith, M. Hingston, G. Summerhayes, J. Robins, H. A. Ross, and M. Hendy, 465-475

Presented here are the most recent results of our studies of Rattus exulans, one of the main commensal animals transported across the Pacific by Lapita peoples and their descendants. We sampled several locations in Near Oceania to determine distribution of R. exulans mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplotypes in the region. We also obtained data regarding distribution of other introduced Rattus species to several islands in the Bismarck Archipelago. Our results suggest that there were multiple introductions of R. exulans to the region, which may suggest a more complex history for Lapita populations in Near Oceania.

Dynamics of Polynesian Subsistence: Insights from Archaeofauna and Stable Isotope Studies, Aitutaki, Southern Cook Islands
Melinda S. Allen and Jacqueline A. Craig, 477-506

Human colonists of Remote Oceania readily took advantage of the naive virgin fauna encountered on previously uninhabited islands, a bounty that was quickly depleted. Subsequent developments in Polynesian subsistence economies were more subtle, varied, and complex. These features are illustrated in a comparison of two quite different subsistence archives from the postcolonization period: archaeofaunal assemblages and stable isotope (δ13C and δ15N) records of humans, pigs, and dogs from the same archaeological contexts. The samples come from four stratified sites, with a total of 22 distinct occupational strata that represent a 600-year period on the small (18.4 km²) almost-atoll of Aitutaki in the southern Cook Islands. Benefits and challenges of integrating these quite different records are considered in the context of specific findings, with implications for subsistence studies elsewhere. In particular, differences in formation processes, taxonomic resolution, and contrasting spatial and temporal scales represented by each record are highlighted. A complex, multiscalar picture of subsistence change emerges, showing variability within and across the three species and the two subsistence archives. Findings support prior interpretations that established (not colonial) settlements are represented by the currently known Aitutaki archaeological record. Within the relatively stable and largely anthropogenic food web, humans occupy a central position throughout the sequence. Through time, a reduction in fishing and decreased consumption of marine carnivores is indicated; these changes are likely to be an outcome of both repeated storm events and considerable shoreline disruption in the fourteenth century A.D., and cultural decisions about the relative costs and benefits of various fishing activities vis-à-vis other subsistence needs. An apparent reduction in variability of pig diets in late prehistory could reflect interspecific competition between pigs and their human managers, although small sample sizes constrain interpretations. Overall, use of two quite different subsistence archives provides a more robust, but also more complex, view of subsistence change across individuals and communities on Aitutaki.

Volcanism and Historical Ecology on the Willaumez Peninsula, Papua New Guinea
Robin Torrence, Vince Neall, and W. E. Boyd, 507-535

The role of natural disasters has been largely overlooked in studies of South Pacific historical ecology. To highlight the importance of rapid-onset natural hazards, we focus on the contributions of volcanism in shaping landscape histories. Results of long-term research in the Willaumez Peninsula on New Britain in Papua New Guinea illustrate the wide range and complexity of potential relationships between volcanic activity and human responses. Despite frequent severe volcanic impacts, human groups have responded creatively to these challenges and over time may have developed particular strategies that coped with the demands of repeated refuging and recolonization.

Archaeological Investigation of the Landscape History of an Oceanic Atoll: Majuro, Marshall Islands
Toru Yamaguchi, Hajime Kayanne, and Hiroya Yamano, 537-565

Historical ecology has provided the field of geoarchaeology in Oceania with the concept of an island landscape as a historical product, invented from the dynamic interactions between natural processes and human agency. Since Davidson’s work in Nukuoro (1971) and Dye’s introduction to the prehistory of Majuro in the Marshall Islands (1987), systematic excavations of atoll islets have also been based on this tenet. Following this concept, this study presents a geoarchaeological examination of the long-term history of the pit-agricultural landscape in Laura Islet of Majuro Atoll, which now consists of 195 pits showing remarkable undulation and anthropogenic vegetation on their spoil banks. Our excavations, conducted since 2003, have revealed that human habitation on Laura began as early as 2,000 years ago, soon after the emergence of the core islet, which probably followed a relative drop in sea level in the late Holocene. Some centuries later, the inhabitants started excavating agricultural pits for the cultivation of wet taro, probably Cyrtosperma spp. The subsequent sea-level decline would have enlarged the foraminiferal sediment; the islet then extended its landform both oceanward and lagoonward as well as along the longitudinal axis stretching north to south. The land accretion caused its inhabitants to increasingly extend their activity space and readjust areas for habitation. It would also have enlarged the volume of the freshwater lens, prompting additional construction of agricultural pits even in the area just behind the lagoonside beach ridge. Most of the current landscape was formed by around 1,000 years ago at the latest. Geoarchaeological synthesis of Pacific atolls will enable the precise elucidation of local chronological relationships between land accretion and expansion of human activities.

Historical Ecology in Kiribati: Linking Past with Present
Frank R. Thomas, 567-600

Compared with “high” islands, atolls and table reefs have received little attention from archaeologists focusing on historical ecology in Oceania. Limited archaeological investigations in the three archipelagoes composing the Republic of Kiribati (Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Groups) reflect primarily culture historical reconstructions. Given the unique environmental challenges posed by coral islands, their potential for prehistoric ecological research should be recognized. By contrast, the last 50 years have witnessed a host of environmental studies, from agricultural improvements to sea-level rise and contemporary human impact on terrestrial and marine resources. In an attempt to better understand the influence of natural and human-induced processes in the more distant past, this paper explores several themes of relevance to coral islands in general. These include (1) natural and anthropogenic change on geomorphology and ecosystems, (2) anthropogenic impacts on faunal resources, (3) environmental evidence for human colonization, (4) interisland exchange networks and population mobility, and (5) social evolution.

Revisiting Rapa Nui (Easter Island) “Ecocide”
Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo, 601-616

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) has become widely known as a case of “ecocide,” where the ancient Polynesians recklessly destroyed their environment and, as a consequence, suffered collapse. In recent publications, both popular and academic, scholars have promoted this perspective, drawing upon archaeological evidence and offering Rapa Nui as a parable for our current global crisis. In this paper we address recent claims and outline emerging archaeological and paleoenvironmental evidence. We consider chronology, causes and consequences of deforestation, agricultural strategies, statue transport, and the evidence for ancient population size and its demise. Although deforestation and ecological catastrophe certainly unfolded over the course of the island’s prehistory, the ensuing demographic and cultural collapse followed European contact and resulted from the devastating effects of disease and slave trading. Deforestation and contact-induced demographic collapse were separated in time and causation. Finally, we offer alternative perspectives emerging from a variety of recent research.

A Long-term Perspective on Biodiversity and Marine Resource Exploitation in Fiji’s Lau Group
Sharyn Jones, 617-648

I present research investigating biodiversity and human interaction with the local environment through three perspectives on diverse islands in Fiji’s Lau Group. First, I generated long-term data on marine diversity and exploitation through zooarchaeological analyses of fauna from sites spanning the region’s prehistoric human occupation. The study areas are representative of regional fauna and local geographic variation in island size and structure. Each island also varies in terms of human occupation and degree of impacts on marine and terrestrial environments. Second, my ethnographic work recorded modern marine exploitation patterns by Lauan communities. Third, marine biological surveys documented living faunas. Together this information is used to explore the marine environment over the three millennia of human occupation. Using data derived from my multipronged study I discuss potential causes of ecological change in this tropical marine setting. My findings include the following: (1) data indicate that relative intensity of human occupation and exploitation determines modern composition and biological diversity of marine communities because human disturbance occurred more extensively on larger islands than on smaller islands in Lau; (2) Lauans appear to have targeted similar suites of marine fauna across their 3,000 years of history on these islands; (3) Lauans have had a selective effect on marine biodiversity because particular species are/were targeted according to local standards of ranking and preference; (4) marine resources existing today have withstood over 3,000 years of human impacts and therefore may have life history traits supporting resilience and making conservation efforts worthwhile.

“Good Water and Firewood”: The Island Oasis of Isla Cedros, Baja California, Mexico
Matthew R. Des Lauriers, 649-672

Today, Isla Cedros is remote from major population centers of northwestern Mexico and the American Southwest, but before European contact and throughout the Colonial Period, it was a well-known location to both indigenous peoples and Europeans. Today, a local fishing cooperative shares the island with a massive Mitsubishi Corporation/Mexican government–owned salt-transshipment facility. Far from representing a cautionary tale of excessive development and environmental degradation, Isla Cedros is one of the few places on the globe where human harvesting of marine resources has not yet resulted in an ecological collapse. It is a place where paradoxes abound and allows an alternative view of human interaction with marine and insular ecosystems. Both short- and long-term environmental variation characterizes this ecologically transitional region, and the adaptability of both its human and nonhuman inhabitants presents insights into the possibility of a “commons” without tragedy. Issues of exclusive use rights, short-periodicity variation, localized effects on resources due to sea-level rise, and sustainable socioeconomic systems can be addressed in an examination of Isla Cedros, Huamalgua, the Island of Fogs. This island setting presents us with challenges to many underexamined assumptions. In essence, it refuses easy categorization, instead offering at least some alternative perspectives for future historical ecological research of broad relevance to coastal and island settings worldwide.

An Introduction to the Biocomplexity of Sanak Island, Western Gulf of Alaska
Herbert D. G. Maschner, Matthew W. Betts, Joseph Cornell, Jennifer A. Dunne, Bruce Finney, Nancy Huntly, James W. Jordan, Aaron A. King, Nicole Misarti, Katherine L. Reedy-Maschner, Roland Russell, Amber Tews, Spencer A. Wood, and Buck Benson, 673-709

The Sanak Biocomplexity Project is a transdisciplinary research effort focused on a small island archipelago 50 km south of the Alaska Peninsula in the western Gulf of Alaska. This team of archaeologists, terrestrial ecologists, social anthropologists, intertidal ecologists, geologists, oceanographers, paleoecologists, and modelers is seeking to understanding the role of the ancient, historic, and modern Aleut in the structure and functioning of local and regional ecosystems. Using techniques ranging from systematic surveys to stable isotope chemistry, long-term shifts in social dynamics and ecosystem structure are present in the context of changing climatic regimes and human impacts. This paper presents a summary of a range of our preliminary findings.

Fishing up the Food Web?: 12,000 Years of Maritime Subsistence and Adaptive Adjustments on California’s Channel Islands
Jon M. Erlandson, Torben C. Rick, and Todd J. Braje, 711-724

Archaeologists working on California’s northern Channel Islands have produced an essentially continuous record of Native American fishing and nearshore ecological changes spanning the last 12,000 years. To search for evidence of Pauly’s “fishing down the foodweb” pattern typical of recent historical fisheries, we analyzed variation in the dietary importance of major marine faunal classes (shellfish, fish, marine mammals) on the islands through time. Faunal data suggest that the Island Chumash and their predecessors focused primarily on low-trophic-level shellfish during the Early and Middle Holocene, before shifting their economic focus to finfish and pinnipeds during the Late Holocene. Replicated in faunal sequences from the adjacent mainland, this trans-Holocene pattern suggests that Native Americans fished up the food web, a strategy that may have been more sustainable and had fewer ecological repercussions. Emerging technological data suggest, however, that some of the earliest Channel Islanders focused more heavily on higher-trophic-level animals, including marine mammals, seabirds, and waterfowl. These data emphasize the differences between the primarily subsistence-based foraging strategies of ancient Channel Islanders and the globalized market-based fisheries of modern and historic times, with important implications for understanding the long-term evolution and historical ecology of marine ecosystems.

Impact of Human Colonization on the Landscape: A View from the Western Pacific
Glenn R. Summerhayes, Matthew Leavesley, and Andy Fairbairn, 725-745

In this paper we review and assess the impact of colonizing peoples on their landscape by focusing on two very different colonizing processes within the western Pacific. The first is the initial human colonization of New Guinea 45,000–40,000 years ago by hunter-foraging populations; the second is the colonization of smaller offshore islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, some 3,300 years ago, by peoples argued to have practiced agriculture: two different colonizing processes by two different groups of peoples with two different social structures practicing two very different subsistence strategies. The impact of these two colonization processes on the environment is compared and contrasted, and commonalities identified for the archaeological and vegetation record.

Epilogue: Changing Archaeological Perspectives upon Historical Ecology in the Pacific Islands
Atholl Anderson, 747-757

Late-twentieth-century archaeological perspectives upon historical ecology in the Pacific islands emphasized anthropogenic impacts documented particularly in studies of vegetation change and deforestation, and the depletion or extinction of native faunas. More complex views of cultural-environmental relationships are now emerging. Biological invasions are seen as occurring more variably than in the transported landscapes model, simplistic narratives of cultural collapse are shown as only partly in agreement with relevant data, and models of behavioral ecology are argued as insufficient to explain long-term trajectories of ecological change. More influential roles are being proposed for climatic and demographic factors and cultural agency in ecological relations.

Association Affairs

Index to Volume 63


Comments are closed.