Precarious Landscapes: Prehistoric Settlement of the Marshall Islands

Article excerpt

Low coral atolls are the most precarious landscapes for human habitation since they have limited land area, humus-poor, undeveloped coralline soils and potable subterranean water restricted to the largest islets of an atoll. Since most atolls are scarcely more than 2 or 3 m above sea level and are frequently inundated by surge and seasonal typhoons, the long-term prehistoric occupation of atolls is all the more amazing (FIGURE 1). Since 1993, a multi-disciplinary project has been examining the human colonization of these small, dispersed landmasses, the cultural and economic adaptations to these unique islands and the historical transformations of atoll societies.


Situated just north of the equator and about 4000 km southwest of Hawai'i, the Marshall Islands consist of 29 atolls spread over nearly 1 million sq. km of ocean in a roughly linear arrangement traversing a rainfall gradient from 1500 mm in the dry north to more than 3000 mm in the wet south. Ecologists have demonstrated a significant relationship between modern population size and environment by examining atoll area and rainfall in the Marshall Islands. The archaeological investigation seeks to extend these modern observations into prehistory by examining the relationship of ancient habitation sites and horticultural systems to atoll land area and rainfall regime along the 1000-km long rainfall gradient. Four atolls were selected for study: Utrik Atoll in the dry north, Ujae and Maloelap atolls (FIGURE 2) in the middle of the archipelago and Ebon Atoll in the wet south. In total, more than 50 archaeological sites have been recorded, a dozen excavated (FIGURE 3; Weisler 1999a) and more than 100,000 faunal remains were predictably high in bones of inshore fish, with birds, turtles, rats, dogs, sea mammals and humans represented. All of the nearly 1000 portable artefacts were fashioned from shell and bone, except for a few volcanic artefacts, the raw material of which floated to the atoll shores in the roots of drift logs. Some 56 radiocarbon age determinations anchor the culture-historical sequence which spans the past two millennia.


Although human colonists were initially drawn to the atolls for harvesting the untapped stocks of fish, molluscs and huge sea-bird colonies, the backbone of Marshallese terrestrial subsistence was based on the cultivation of Giant swamp taro (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) which was grown in pits with heavily mulched soils (FIGURE 4; Weisler 1999b). …