Volcanic soils yield new clues about the emergence of powerful chiefdoms in Hawaii

'i, where per capita yields were declining. They probably looked up the chain of islands toward Moloka'i and O'ahu and said, 'I'd love to get hold of those taro paddies.'"

By the early 1800s, just a few decades after European contact, the remarkable agricultural system that once prospered on Maui and Hawaii had collapsed. Most historians blame its demise on the introduction of human diseases, which caused a drastic crash in the Hawaiian population. As a result, there were no longer enough people to work the labor-intensive fields, and as the population fell, the demand for sweet potatoes also declined.

According to Vitousek, the successes and failures of the early Polynesians offer important lessons for tropical forest management today.

"Just as land influenced Polynesian societies, Polynesian societies influenced land," he wrote. "Those societies faced the challenge of making a transition from intensive, exploitative use of their island's obviously limited resources, to more sustainable use of those resources. We ourselves now face the challenge of global transition to sustainability; can we learn from societies that succeeded or failed on smaller worlds?"

Other coauthors of the Science study are Shripad Tuljapurkar, professor of biological sciences at Stanford; T.N. Ladefoged of the University of Auckland; O. A. Chadwick and A.S. Hartshorn of the University of California-Santa Barbara; M.W. Graves of the University of Hawaii-Manoa; and S.C. Hotchkiss of the University of Wisconsin. The research was supported by a Biocomplexity in the Environment grant from the National Science Foundation.

By Mark Shwartz


Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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