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An Archaeology of Plant Food Production on Pingelap Atoll: Preliminary Report on the 2017 Field Season

Maureece J. Levin, Stanford Archaeology Center, Project Grant, 2017–2018

Atoll environments can be difficult places to live. As upraised coral rings with a small land area in generally isolated locations, they tend to have low biodiversity, few or no native terrestrial species edible to humans, and a high susceptibility to adverse weather events. Nevertheless, many Pacific Islanders have flourished on atolls such as Pingelap for long periods of time.

Pingelap is in central-eastern Micronesia at approximately 6° N, 160° E. Politically, it is part of modern Pohnpei State in the Federated States of Micronesia. It consists of three islets that total 1.8 km2: Kahlap, Deke, and Sukoru. Only the largest, Kahlap, is currently inhabited. From June to August 2017, Maureece J. Levin, along with colleagues Katherine Seikel (Australian National University and AmaTerra Environmental, Inc.) and Aimee Miles (Koç University) conducted a field season of archaeological investigation on Pingelap. The focus of this project was how gardening practices in the past affected and continue to affect the cultural and physical environments of the Pingelapese community.

Archaeological Work

Field crew, left to right: Herold Boaz, Eric Ernest, Fred Ohrio, Katherine Seikel, Aimee Miles, and Maureece Levin
Fig. 1: Field crew, left to right: Herold Boaz, Eric Ernest, Fred Ohrio, Katherine Seikel, Aimee Miles, and Maureece Levin

To the best of our knowledge, this is the longest archaeological project to date on Pingelap. Along with the visiting archaeologists, three local consultants assisted with archaeological work: Eric Ernest, Fred Ohrio, and Herold Boaz (See fig. 1 for a photograph of the field crew). Pedestrian surveys, shovel tests, three test units, and collection and flotation of sediment samples formed the core of the archaeological work.

Historic House Platforms on Deke Islet, view from the lagoon
Fig. 2: Historic House Platforms on Deke Islet, view from the lagoon

The field survey began with visits to known sites on Kahlap and Deke, led by Eric Ernest. Japanese presence on Kahlap during World War II heavily shaped the historical landscape of Pingelap. The remains of the old Japanese base are a major presence on southern Kahlap, and US bombings of this base forced the Pingelapese community to resettle their village on Deke for a portion of the war (fig. 2). This event is still part of living memory for some of the oldest residents of Pingelap. Additional historically and culturally important areas of the island include the taro patch (still in use today), a historical bathing pool, a breadfruit tree stand associated in oral tradition with the figure Isohkelekel, and a section of the lagoon that is prominent in oral histories. We also conducted pedestrian surveys and five shovel tests near the short airstrip, but no evidence of prehistoric construction  or habitation was uncovered in this area.

Prehistoric artifacts recovered from Test Unit 1, clockwise from left: Shell adze, two shell beads, portion of shell pendant
Fig. 3: Prehistoric artifacts recovered from Test Unit 1, clockwise from left: shell adze, two shell beads, portion of shell pendant

Given the vulnerability of atolls to adverse weather, especially flooding, villages tend to be built in the highest and most sheltered locations, typically a few meters above sea level. Hundreds of years of settlement in these places can result in rich, deep archaeological deposits. Thus, our first 1 m × 1 m test unit (TU1) was placed near the topographical highpoint of Kahlap, just outside of the central village area. The uppermost 30 cm consisted primarily of 20th-century deposits, including glass, metal, and plastic objects. Beyond 30 cm, the deposit consisted largely of fish bone and shell, which continued to a depth of 3 m, where we encountered a large piece of coral that impeded our ability to continue excavation. Below a depth of 2 m, we recovered several presumably prehistoric artifacts, including a shell adze exhibiting macroscopic usewear damage, half of a flat shell pendant, and two beads (fig. 3). We collected 41 point samples of charcoal and charred nutshell for AMS dating, which is currently in progress. We also collected and floated 31 flotation samples from this unit, as well as 29 sediment samples for macroremain analysis. Although analysis is in its early stages, data from this unit are helping to develop a baseline chronology of settlement and subsistence on the atoll.

Two smaller test units were also completed. Test Unit 2 was excavated in the main taro patch on Kahlap to better understand gardening history on this area of land. Flotation and plant microremain samples were collected from this unit, as were two samples for AMS dating. Test Unit 3 was in the agroforest in the southern portion of the island; due to time constraints, we collected only phytolith samples from this unit and not flotation samples. However, sterile sand deposits were encountered before 40 cm of depth, and no charcoal was recovered.

Interviews

Levin conducted 14 interviews with community members concerning modern agroforestry, gardening, and cooking practices. Interviewees were between the ages of 29 and 80. All interviews were conducted in English, or in English and Pingelapese with the assistance of an interpreter. The purpose of these interviews was twofold. First, they can help develop better models for understanding local agricultural systems. Second, they can highlight how local farmers view their landscape and facilitate the inclusion of Pingelapese voices in discussions of farming practices in the region. Some of the important local plants currently farmed include giant swamp taro (Cyrtosperma merkusii), bananas (Musa sp.), coconuts (Cocos nucifera), pandanus (Pandanus tectorius), and breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis). People reported a variety of farming and cooking methods, a detailed analysis of which is currently in progress.

Botanical and Faunal Reference Materials

As botanical and faunal analysis are crucial to understanding historical Pingelapese subsistence, we began work on comparative collections of fish bones and plants from the atoll. Plant specimens were collected by Ernest and Levin, and include Cocos nucifera (coconut), Thuarea involuta (moakerak), Cyrtosperma merkusii (giant swamp taro), Colocasia esculenta (sweet taro), Musa sp. (banana), Artocarpus altilis (breadfruit), Carica papaya (papaya), Pandanus tectorius (pandanus), Ceodes umbellifera, and an additional local grass that remains to be identified to genus. Miles, a zooarchaeologist who specializes in fish bone, along with Ernest and Kodaro Soaz (the Pingelap Chief of Police and a skilled fisherman) collected fish representing eight different local taxa. All plant and animal bone specimens are currently being stored at the Stanford Archaeology Center.