Development of an Agroforest on a Micronesian High Island: Prehistoric Kosraean Agriculture

By Athens, J. Stephen; Ward, Jerome V. et al. | Antiquity, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Development of an Agroforest on a Micronesian High Island: Prehistoric Kosraean Agriculture


Athens, J. Stephen, Ward, Jerome V., Murakami, Gail M., Antiquity


Prehistoric Micronesian agriculture

Prehistoric Micronesian agriculture has been seldom considered as a subject for investigation in its own right. Notwithstanding several discussions based on very limited data (e.g. Ayres & Haun 1990; Parker & King 1981; also recent review by Rainbird 1994), there has been no systematic treatment of prehistoric agriculture for any island. Rather, traditional agricultural practices as recorded ethnographically are generally assumed to have typified prehistoric practices, and differences between islands are regarded as having been present in the prehistoric past as well (see Hunter-Anderson 1991 for review of traditional Micronesian agriculture). This is hardly a satisfactory state of affairs. How do we know such continuity between the ethnographic present and the past is really true? There could have been major developmental changes in agriculture during the course of an island's prehistory as, for example, has been suggested by Parker & King (1981) for Chuuk. Did agriculture as we know it ethnographically just start from day one as each island was first colonized?

In the many archaeological reports concerning Micronesia during the past two decades, structural remains related to agriculture tend to be few or non-diagnostic, and there are few obvious remains of cultigens or diagnostic vegetal parts in the archaeological record. In this article we suggest a methodology for studying prehistoric Micronesian agriculture that involves pollen and charcoal sequences from both non-site and archaeological locations, and the identification of intensively collected archaeological charcoal. This has proven very effective in our archaeological research on Kosrae, a high volcanic island in the Eastern Caroline Islands of Micronesia.

The investigations were conducted during three field projects between 1982 and 1989. Most of the data derive from the Kosrae Wastewater Project, conducted over a two month period in 1989 with a 'landscape archaeology' focus (Athens 1995: 12-15). Fieldwork involved palaeo-environmental sediment coring in wetlands, excavations at off-site locations for geomorphological and palaeoenvironmental data and systematic recovery of carbonized plant remains from archaeological sites. For laboratory analysis, attention was given to radiocarbon dating, pollen analysis, charcoal/macrobotanical analysis and faunal analysis.

Kosrae

Kosrae is a small, tropical, lushly vegetated, high volcanic island in the Eastern Caroline Islands of Micronesia (Merlin et al. 1993). It is c. 550 km east-southeast of Pohnpei, the closest neighbouring high island, and 5 [degrees] latitude north of the equator [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The small coralline atolls of Pingelap and Mokil are situated between Kosrae and Pohnpei. East of Kosrae, the nearest atoll of the Marshall Islands, Ebon, is some 630 km distant.

Kosrae, with a land area of 109 sq. km (42 sq. miles), consists primarily of a rugged mountainous interior with a narrow coastal plain [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. The mountains rise to a maximum 629 m (2064 ft) above sea level. Nearly 70% of the island has steep slopes and 15% of the land area is made up of foot slopes, alluvial fans and bottom lands, with most of the remaining 14% mangrove swamps (Whitesell et al. 1986).

Kosrae is tropical, with high rainfall (5000 mm annually with higher amounts in the island's interior) and high humidity all the year round. The island is at the edge of the tradewind belt to the east; it exerts only a slight effect on Kosrae's climate from February to April, when rainfall decreases somewhat and offshore winds become more noticeable. Kosrae rarely experiences typhoons, which tend to have their origins to the west off the coasts of Pohnpei and Chuuk and then move westward. At present approximately 63% of the island is forested, leaving 23% in agroforest (primarily breadfruit, coconut and banana), 11% in secondary vegetation and 3% non-forested (Whitesell et al. …

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