Project Report

For the summer of 2011, I received an EAPSI (East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute) award for their Australia Program. I spent two months at the Australian National University’s Department of Archaeology and Natural History. My supervisor at ANU was Dr. Matthew Prebble, who is an expert on prehistoric human-environment interactions in the Australia-Pacific region. As a Pacific Islands archaeologist, part of my research involves the study of plant remains in archaeological contexts. This is known as paleoethnobotany, and it provides archaeologists with useful information about human interactions with plants in the past. Through these types of studies, we can learn about prehistoric agricultural systems and other types of vegetation management, diet, medicinal practices, and tool use. While there are many types of plant remains preserved at archaeological sites, this project focused on the study of one particular type of plant remain, known as phytoliths. Phytoliths are microscopic silica bodies produced by plants in both intracellular and extracellular spaces. The shapes produced by phytoliths can be diagnostic of types of plants, often to the level of family, and sometimes even to genus. Thus, analysis of phytoliths from archaeological contexts can help to understand what plants were present at a particular location. This EAPSI Australia summer project focuses specifically on phytoliths in Pacific Islands contexts. In the context of the Pacific Islands, phytolith research is in its early stages. However, in the hot and humid climates of the tropical Pacific, where organic materials are not well preserved, phytoliths, being silica-based, have great potential in developing a greater understanding of the relationship between people and plants. This short project attempted a few objectives: 1) The development of a Pacific Islands phytolith reference collection; and 2) analysis of sediment core samples (collected by Dr. Prebble) from Tikopia in the Solomon Islands in order to look for evidence of early food production strategies. The course of the project also involved the processing of several sediment samples from Pohnpei, Micronesia for phytolith analysis. In doing this, I aimed to develop my knowledge base and skills in phytolith analysis so that I can apply them to my dissertation research in Micronesia. During the course of the project, I became acquainted with processing sediments and dried plant specimens for phytolith analysis, as well as viewing and analyzing phytolith samples under a microscope. The phytolith reference collection that was produced during the course of this project includes 115 reference samples from 50 different specimens present of Pacific Islands. I focused on, but did not limit the collection to, species intensively used by humans. I produced two copies of the reference collection, one which I brought with me to the University of Oregon, and one that I left at the Australian National University for use there. I viewed and photographed more than half of the slides, and will continue this work at Oregon. This not only provides a reference collection for use at multiple locations, but it also helps to identify which types of Pacific plants produce significant quantities of phytoliths and which do not, which can help in interpreting what the phytolith record means. The analysis of phytoliths from Tikopia core samples is not yet complete, but it does show some initial information regarding what plants were present through time. These data can complement other types of proxy data (pollen, diatoms) that researchers at the Australia National University are currently examining from this same core. While my time on the EAPSI program has ended, the collaborative relationships developed will continue. I am taking these skills I learned back to the University of Oregon and applying them to my dissertation research in Pohnpei, Micronesia. This project has given me the ability to really begin to incorporate phytolith data into my work. This type of work will enrich our knowledge of prehistoric food production strategies in a region where this is sometimes difficult to study. It should also be mentioned that this has applications beyond deepening our understanding of the past. Populations worldwide are facing real problems with developing agricultural systems that can be used to sustain themselves over long periods of time. A good understanding of what has and has not worked over the long term in the past informs the development of sustainable agricultural strategies that will ensure food security for the Pacific region and beyond.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Office of International and Integrative Activities (IIA)
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Carter Kimsey
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Levin Maureece J
United States
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