Food Production, Environment, and Culture in the Tropical Pacific: Evidence for Prehistoric and Historic Plant Cultivation in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia
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Food production, or the cultivation and processing of edible materials, is closely linked to both the physical environment and human social systems. This is especially true on the islands of Remote Oceania, where cultivation of plants introduced with colonization has always been a key component of survival. This project centers on the production systems of an island in the west central Pacific: Pohnpei, Micronesia. It addresses the fundamental question of how food production is related to changes in social and physical environments and also addresses the optimum ways to archaeologically study plant remains in tropical oceanic environments with poor preservation. In order to examine these questions, this project looks at human-environment interrelationships using historical ecology. A multi-pronged approach was used in this research. Archaeological survey was used to identify prehistoric and historic features on the landscape and to map the distribution of food production activities. Excavation of selected archaeological features, including breadfruit fermentation pits, yam enclosures, and cooking features, was conducted to examine formation patterns. Paleoethnobotanical analysis included collection and analysis of flotation samples for carbonized plant macroremain analysis and sediment samples for phytolith analysis. Finally, because a reference collection is key to all paleoethnobotanical research, plant specimens from multiple Pacific locations were collected and processed for phytolith reference. Botanical data show that phytolith analysis is very useful in the Pacific region, as many economically important taxa produce phytoliths. However, because of differential silica uptake, it should be used in conjunction with other methods. Archaeological phytolith analysis of the garden landscape shows disturbance caused by pigs, which were introduced historically, a change from the prehistoric phytolith record, which shows no major shifts. Combined analysis of plant macroremains and phytoliths from secure archaeological contexts shows the use of banana leaves in breadfruit cooking in the historic period, highlighting the importance of multi-method paleoethnobotanical study. These data point towards an anthropogenic environment and stable agricultural system that was present in late prehistoric Pohnpei. Major changes occurred in the historic period, although production of plant foods that were important for centuries continues to flourish today.