Remote island provides clues on population growth, environmental degradation

EUGENE--(Aug. 25, 2006)--Halfway between South America and New Zealand, in the remote South Pacific, is Rapa. This horseshoe-shaped, 13.5 square-mile island of volcanic origin, located essentially in the middle of nowhere, is "a microcosm of the world's situation," says a University of Oregon archaeologist.

Until only recently, little was known about the French Polynesian Island, where the current population is less than 500. Archaeological, linguistic and genetic data suggest that the island, like much of East Polynesia, was inhabited in a final pulse of colonization by seafaring travelers who originated from Island Southeast Asia. New research, led by the University of Oregon's Douglas Kennett, has shed fresh new light on Rapa, especially on what life may have been like for as many as 1,500 to 2,000 people who lived there before the arrival of European explorers.

Kennett's team, which included researchers from three institutions, reported in the June issue of the journal Antiquity that Polynesians arrived on the island around A.D. 1200, much later than long assumed. The settlers spread across the island, splintering from a shoreline-based society into competing groups that built and likely defended a growing number of spectacular fortifications carved from mountaintops in the years before English explorer George Vancouver sailed by in 1791, ushering in European contact.

The conclusions of Kennett's team are based on 48 radiocarbon dates drawn from samples taken from a variety of sites, including archaeological excavations at five of 16 known coastal rock shelters and four of 15 upland fortifications, each with a central tower surrounded by a series of large domestic terraces.

The settlement date for Rapa matches nicely with new data from Easter Island (Rapa Nui) suggesting that colonization there also occurred about A.D. 1200, a conclusion published March 17 by Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl L

Contact: Jim Barlow
University of Oregon

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