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Human settlement of East Polynesia earlier, incremental, and coincident with prolonged South Pacific drought

Sear, David A. and Allen, Melinda S. and Hassall, Jonathan D. and Maloney, Ashley E. and Langdon, Peter G. and Morrison, Alex E. and Henderson, Andrew C. G. and Mackay, Helen and Croudace, Ian W. and Clarke, Charlotte and Sachs, Julian P. and Macdonald, Georgiana and Chiverrell, Richard C. and Leng, Melanie J. and Cisneros-Dozal, L. M. and Fonville, Thierry and Pearson, Emma (2020) 'Human settlement of East Polynesia earlier, incremental, and coincident with prolonged South Pacific drought.', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America., 117 (16). pp. 8813-8819.


The timing of human colonization of East Polynesia, a vast area lying between Hawai‘i, Rapa Nui, and New Zealand, is much debated and the underlying causes of this great migration have been enigmatic. Our study generates evidence for human dispersal into eastern Polynesia from islands to the west from around AD 900 and contemporaneous paleoclimate data from the likely source region. Lake cores from Atiu, Southern Cook Islands (SCIs) register evidence of pig and/or human occupation on a virgin landscape at this time, followed by changes in lake carbon around AD 1000 and significant anthropogenic disturbance from c. AD 1100. The broader paleoclimate context of these early voyages of exploration are derived from the Atiu lake core and complemented by additional lake cores from Samoa (directly west) and Vanuatu (southwest) and published hydroclimate proxies from the Society Islands (northeast) and Kiribati (north). Algal lipid and leaf wax biomarkers allow for comparisons of changing hydroclimate conditions across the region before, during, and after human arrival in the SCIs. The evidence indicates a prolonged drought in the likely western source region for these colonists, lasting c. 200 to 400 y, contemporaneous with the phasing of human dispersal into the Pacific. We propose that drying climate, coupled with documented social pressures and societal developments, instigated initial eastward exploration, resulting in SCI landfall(s) and return voyaging, with colonization a century or two later. This incremental settlement process likely involved the accumulation of critical maritime knowledge over several generations.

Item Type:Article
Additional Information:Correction, 08 June 2020: Supporting information:
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Publisher statement:Copyright © 2020 the Author(s). Published by PNAS. This open access article is distributed under Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 (CC BY).
Date accepted:No date available
Date deposited:22 October 2021
Date of first online publication:06 April 2020
Date first made open access:22 October 2021

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