The role of arboriculture in landscape domestication and agronomic development: a case study from the Marquesas Islands, East Polynesia

Economic development Land use Ecosystems Farming Polynesia
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Polynesian settlers transformed the native forests of the central Pacific islands into productive economic landscapes. Root crops came to dominate agronomic systems in many areas but arboriculture was the dominant mode of food production in some, and it is not well understood how these different endpoints evolved. In the Marquesas Islands, an economy dominated by Polynesian-introduced tree crops was encountered at western contact. Development of this system was investigated using large wood charcoal assemblages that spanned at least a 600-year period in Marquesan prehistory. Charcoal analysis is uniquely suited to inform on the reflexive processes of socio-economic development and landscape domestication in this setting, providing direct information on past vegetation and the use of arboreal resources. Data were compared from sites in three windward valleys with contrasting geographic and micro-climate conditions. A minimum of 59 taxa were identified including food-producing trees such as breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), coconut (Cocos nucifera), candlenut (Aleurites moluccana), Pandanus, Terminalia and Tahitian chestnut (Inocarpus fagifer). Although tree crops were cultivated early in the sequence, breadfruit wood was infrequent (or absent) in contexts that dated to before AD 1400. Breadfruit was, however, a frequent occurrence in multiple study locations after 1650. A chronology of landscape domestication was defined for the windward valleys of Nuku Hiva, and the findings of this study suggest that the lush agroforests noted at contact were in place by the mid-17th century. Possible scenarios that could have led to this outcome were considered, and the decision to intensify food production through the cultivation of tree crops in this setting is linked to both the high yields that can be achieved on rugged land and the labour-efficiency of tree cropping. It is further argued variability in climate was a significant factor, and the ability to store fermented breadfruit (mā) for long periods of time would have provided food security if crops repeatedly failed. More generally, it is suggested that arboriculture is an important component of subsistence strategies in environments where climate is highly variable. Comparison with available data from the Society Islands provides some support for this suggestion. Keywords: Marquesas, arboriculture, anthracology, wood charcoal, landscape domestication

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