Sustainability is a 21st century buzzword, but a new interdisciplinary study shows that some communities have been conducting sustainable practices for at least a thousand years.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and coauthored by University of Oregon archaeologist Scott Fitzpatrick, the study integrates data from archaeology, history and paleoecology to gain new insight into human-environmental interactions in the deep past. Focused on tropical island archipelagoes including Palau in Micronesia, the interdisciplinary data suggest that human-driven environmental change created feedback loops that prompted new approaches to resource management.
The data from Palau point to human impacts on marine ecology beginning about 3,000 years ago, impacts that affected fish populations and therefore one of ancient Palau’s most important food sources.
“Islanders apparently responded to those impacts by inventing new, sustainable practices,” said Fitzpatrick, a professor of anthropology and the associate director for research at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
The archaeological data indicate that the first Palauans settled in the interiors of its largest islands around 3,000 years ago, where they cleared forested areas and built earthen terraces to support agriculture. Then, in a move that has long stumped archaeologists, those communities gradually abandoned the interior regions in favor of the coastal margins where, beginning about 1,200 years ago, they built villages and established taro gardens buffered from the sea by mangrove forests.