Pre-Contact Arboriculture and Vegetation in the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia: Charcoal Identification and Radiocarbon Dates from Hatiheu Valley, Nuku Hiva

By Millerstrom, Sidsel; Coil, James H. | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Pre-Contact Arboriculture and Vegetation in the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia: Charcoal Identification and Radiocarbon Dates from Hatiheu Valley, Nuku Hiva


Millerstrom, Sidsel, Coil, James H., Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


INTRODUCTION

STUDIES INVESTIGATING HUMAN-INDUCED ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS on tropical islands have a long scientific history, with significant early momentum created by publication of Raymond Fosberg's (1965) conference volume entitled Man's Place in the Island Ecosystem. The islands of the Pacific, known for their great cultural and environmental variability (Kirch 1984; Thomas 1965), have formed the setting for the majority of global research on the subject. In the Pacific Island region, debates that first emerged four decades ago continue today, and increasingly data-driven models have by now begun to replace more speculative and at times overreaching early assessments.

Previous research has securely demonstrated that individual islands and archipelagoes can have highly variable long-term ecological histories, which can be productively compared and contrasted (Florence and Lorence 1997; Kirch 1997; Kirch and Hunt 1997; Rolett and Diamond 2004). Several authors have also described, classified, and interpreted the diversity of agricultural production systems in the Pacific Islands (e.g., Kirch 1994; Leach 1999; Yen and Mummery 1990), but studies of irrigated taro systems and dryland "tuber"-growing landscapes have far exceeded, in number and intensity, studies of arboriculture. Because Marquesan islands like Nuku Hiva were among Polynesia's most breadfruit-reliant at the time of European contact, the Hatiheu Valley study area discussed here is an ideal setting to investigate long-term patterns in the development of Pacific Island arboricultural economies.

Intensive irrigated or dryland crop-growing systems often leave visible and distinctive remains on the landscape, whether in the form of "landesque capital" (Kirch 1994) or more indirect evidence such as that indicative of burning or erosion. Arboriculture, on the other hand, often involves significant modification of native vegetation but little modification of the abiotic landscape. Because of this, alternative means of studying the diachronic development of arboriculture must be developed and employed. Taxonomic identification of macroscopic wood charcoal ("anthracology") is one means by which to recover cultural and environmental information during the course of archaeological investigations, and this approach has been fruitfully applied in many Pacific Island studies as a means by which to recover information regarding the identity and distributions of specific trees and shrubs, or of broader vegetation zones or communities, in a study area of interest (e.g., Allen and Murakami 1999; Athens et al. 1996; Coil 2004; Murakami 1983; Orliac 1997; Orliac and Orliac 1999). Like other forms of paleoecological data, wood charcoal identification results must be interpreted in accordance with a set of caveats involving potential biases and translocations. Approaches based upon the holistic incorporation of multiple lines of archaeobotanical, palynological, faunal, geoarchaeological, and ethnohistoric evidence, have therefore proven to be the most effective strategies to help untangle complex questions related to the role of humans in diachronic patterns of island environmental change.

In some locales, however, such as the Marquesas Islands, paleoenvironmental data remain essentially uncollected, and initial foundations have yet to be lain to help direct more expansive paleoecological studies. Though ethnographic and ethnohistoric studies have greatly expanded our knowledge of the developmental endpoints of Pacific Island agricultural systems and practices, these types of evidence are simply unable to provide any information on long-term patterns of economic development and change (Addison 2001). Proxy evidence for pre-contact vegetation change is found in Marquesan archaeofaunal studies (Kirch 1973; Rolett 1992; Steadman and Rolett 1996). Such studies have suggested that "habitat loss" was a significant cause of faunal shifts, but the nature and extent of the implied vegetation change remain indeterminate with only faunal data. …

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