Vulnerability and Resilience in Island Socioecosystems

With National Science Foundation BCS- 1029765 support, Drs. Jennifer Kahn and Patrick Kirch, assisted by an international team of collaborators, will conduct archaeological and paleoecological fieldwork on three islands of French Polynesia. The team brings together U.S., Australian, New Zealand, and French specialists in archaeology, paleoethnobotany, paleoecology, and soil science. They will examine island ecosystems and cultural responses to ecosystem change which led to radically transformed landscapes and emergent sociopolitical formations (chiefdoms) in Polynesia. Using a comparative approach, the project will study the island ecosystems of Mangareva, Mo'orea, and Maupiti. These three islands exhibit critical contrasts in island geology and age, geomorphology, size, and climate and marine resources; they vary significantly in the degree of socio-political hierarchy and integration; and they have existing archaeological and paleoecological data upon which the research can build. Applying the concept of islands as model systems, the project seeks to understand both the vulnerability of island ecosystems and their resilience to long-term human interactions with the landscape. The team will also investigate how socio-political systems responded to, and were affected by, such processes. All Polynesian societies trace their origins back to a common Ancestral Polynesian culture, yet diverse social systems evolved through time with marked differences in population densities, productive systems, and political structures. Thus, comparative archaeological research in Polynesia offers an especially clear opportunity to understand the emergence of complex socio-political organizations such as chiefdoms. The study will contribute to understanding how dynamic interactions between island populations and island environments allowed some Polynesian cultures to develop substantial resilience, and led others into states of high instability and vulnerability.

The project will obtain basic data from former cultivation zones, monumental architecture sites, and coastal habitations with paleoecological records of island flora and fauna. These data will be used to understand: 1) interactions among human-induced landscape change; 2) shifts in settlement patterns; 3) changes in agricultural infrastructure and production; and, 4) levels of ideological control. The project will model how these variables influenced emerging social complexity, and how they affected long term adaptive cycles in island systems. The intellectual merit of the research includes testing models of how social complexity develops over time and examining how past societies adapted to challenges such as over-exploitation of resources and high population densities, two of the most contentious issues confronting contemporary archaeology and indeed, many current societies. The deeper understanding of interactions between island social systems, environments, and differential cultural responses to ecosystem change gained in this research will enhance current perspectives on sustainability and resilience.

The broader impacts of the study include education, outreach, fostering international research collaboration and integration of natural and social sciences. The project involves collaboration among scholars and students from multiple institutions in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and French Polynesia and of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The project team will offer critical training opportunities to students of Polynesian descent. The project emphasizes archaeology but is truly interdisciplinary, and will contribute more broadly to conceptual integration across the natural and social sciences.

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