Commensal Fauna as a Window into Long-Term Island Socio-Ecosystem Dynamics
Studying the interactions between past societies and their ecosystems provides a long-term perspective on humankind’s role in the Anthropocene epoch. Islands in particular serve as effective microcosms for global concerns including biodiversity and resource sustainability. This project applies a commonly used technique for reconstructing human diet—carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) stable isotope analysis—to commensal faunal assemblages to gain insight into past island landscapes and human activity.
Rats and other small commensal omnivores are often viewed as pests due to their close association with humans and often scavenger-like, opportunistic diets. However, it is these same qualities that make them ideal subjects for investigating local ecosystems and resource availability. Dietary shifts in these species can be linked to such environmental changes as species extinctions and introductions, resource depression, and changing human subsistence. Analyses of larger-bodied species such as pigs can provide insight into past husbandry regimes and resource management.
The project employs a comparative approach towards investigating human-environment interactions within contrastive island systems in order to isolate and understand the mechanisms that contribute to long-term socio-ecosystem sustainability. In particular, it seeks to understand the role of various animal species in past island societies, and the impacts these animals had on their surroundings. Analysis is currently underway on archaeofaunal materials from several Polynesian Islands (Tikopia, Mangaia, Mangareva, the Marquesas, and the Hawaiian archipelago) as well as the East African island of Pemba (Zanzibar Archipelago). While Polynesian islands have often been at the forefront of this research, our project endeavors to highlight the islands of East Africa as an understudied region with much to contribute to discussions of island socio-ecosystem dynamics.
Kirch, P.V., Molle, G., Nickelsen, C., Mills, P., Dotte-Sarout, E., Swift, J., Wolfe, A., and Horrocks, M. 2015. Human ecodynamics in the Mangareva Islands: A stratified sequence from Nenega-Iti Rock Shelter (site AGA-3, Agakauitai Island). Archaeology in Oceania 50(1):23-42.
Swift, J.A., Miller, M.J., and Kirch, P.V. 2016. Stable isotope analysis of Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) from archaeological sites in Mangareva (French Polynesia): The use of commensal species for understanding human activity and ecosystem change. Environmental Archaeology, DOI: 10.1080/14614103.2016.1216933.