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Small islands played an important role in early maritime migrations in many regions of the world throughout human prehistory. However, their significance as places of settlement, seasonal occupation sites, navigational waypoints, and natural resource reservoirs is less researched in island archaeology (Fitzpatrick et al. 2016). The greater emphasis placed on larger island settlements has led to a somewhat circumscribed view of how people interacted with islandscapes in the prehistoric past— one that often overlooks the unique adaptations that small islands necessitated, as well as the special affordances they provided.
Of the many categories of small islands, coral atolls in the Pacific presented some of the greatest environmental challenges to prehistoric human settlement. Nevertheless, atolls played a key role in late Holocene maritime expansions into remote Oceania (Weisler et al. 2012). My dissertation project investigates atoll settlement processes and human interactions with marine environments in central-eastern Micronesia, focusing most closely on the case study of Pingelap Atoll in the Caroline Island archipelago. Pingelap lies between the larger volcanic islands of Pohnpei to the west and Kosrae to the east, known for their politically stratified chiefdoms and megalithic architecture. Less is known of smaller island communities in this region, for whom terrestrial natural resources were limited and the marine environment supplied vital sustenance and raw material. Excavations carried out in 2017 and 2019 revealed evidence of intensive marine resource use from the time of initial settlement, which occurred by ca.1700-1550 BP, throughout the occupation period of the atoll (Levin et al. 2018).
Drawing from the historical ecology tradition, I aim to reconstruct prehistoric marine resource use and subsistence practices on Pingelap and neighboring islets over the course of nearly two millennia, and to trace the impacts of human activities on local fisheries and marine ecosystems during that period. To understand the interplay of natural and cultural processes that shaped human relationships with nearshore and marine environments in the prehistoric past, this study integrates zooarchaeological analyses of faunal and artifact assemblages with paleoecological and modern ecological data, and also includes ethnoarchaeological interviews with local community members whose traditional knowledge systems encompass a range of natural phenomena.
Tracing past human interactions with small islands is not only of regional importance, it also has the potential to contribute to wider thematic discourses in island and maritime archaeology. My dissertation research also focuses on developing comparative perspectives between Pacific and Baltic Island contexts, especially concerning settlement processes, subsistence and food production strategies, the formation of small island societies, and the relationships they had with neighboring islands and continents. By drawing cross-cultural comparisons of phenomena that unify or differentiate small island societies across broad cultural, geographical, and temporal spectra, I also aim to critique the methodological and theoretical approaches that have shaped our conceptualizations of islands in the past and present.