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UC Berkeley professor heading research in Hawaii in search of clues to sustainability questions
19 December 2001

By Kathleen Maclay

Manawainui is an area within the Maui study region where UC Berkeley's Professor Patrick V. Kirch and his team are exploring settlement patterns and land use in relation to environmental variations in the landscape. Photo courtesy of Lisa Holm.

Berkeley - A multi-disciplinary team from five universities is exploring a thousand years of life and history on two Hawaiian islands, searching for clues to cultural and environmental sustainability.

Led by University of California, Berkeley, professor Patrick V. Kirch, widely known for his research on the archaeology and prehistory of the Pacific Islands, researchers are zeroing in on the regions of Kohala on the island of Hawaii and Kahikinui on Maui. Each region features thousands of individual sites where crews have begun to trace the intricate interactions between colonizing humans and the environments over a period ending around 1800.

During that time, the indigenous Polynesian population increased dramatically in size, sociopolitical complexity emerged within Hawaiian society, and local physical environments underwent staggering transformations as farming-based economies took hold.

"Although the project is focused on the Hawaiian Islands, the issues addressed are global," said Kirch, the project's principal investigator. "Many of the cultural and natural co-evolutionary processes that happened in Hawaii over the millennium prior to European contact have also happened elsewhere and are taking place today on a global environmental scale."

Those processes include unprecedented population growth, widespread deforestation, soil degradation through forest clearance and nutrient depletion, population migrations into marginal lands, and increased centralization of political power and economic control, said Kirch.

National Science Foundation funding is financing 14 "Biocomplexity in the Environment" research projects. A three-year, $1.4 million grant was issued to UC Berkeley's Archaeological Research Facility for the Kirch-led team.

Kirch and his fellow researchers hope to produce dynamic models of the causal and systemic links to changes on the two islands, models that "can help us understand irreversible changes driven by the coupling of human and natural systems," said Kirch.

Researchers will concentrate on four subjects:

* Agricultural development in the study regions over time and space

* How human population growth and fluctuations relate to resource use and agricultural intensification

* Emergence of such sociopolitical complexity as formal control hierarchies, and the control over labor and surplus

* How growing populations and evolving cultures affect natural resource bases

"The Hawaiian Islands offer unique opportunities for constraining analyses of ecosystems, human demography and economics, and cultural and social responses to environmental change,"
Kirch said.

A petroglyph from Manawainui, within the study site on the leeward side of Maui. Photo courtesy of Lisa Holm.

Kirch is a leading authority on the archaeology of the Pacific Islands and director of UC Berkeley's Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology. He also is director of the Oceanic Archaeology Laboratory at UC Berkeley's Archaeological Research Facility.

He is author of "On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact," published earlier this year, in which he said most Pacific islands already were densely populated by the time Europeans arrived to worsen the human impact on natural ecosystems. Settlement of the Pacific was one of the fastest human expansions of all time, Kirch wrote.

Other participants Kirch chose for the project include archaeologists Michael Graves of the University of Hawaii and Thegn Ladefoged of the University of Washington. Both bring years of Hawaiian research to the project. Kirch has been studying the Kahikinui site since 1994.

Two major geographic information system databases will provide a platform for spatial analysis.

Ecologist Peter Vitousek of Stanford University, experienced in the study of Hawaiian ecosystem variability, will work closely with soil scientist Oliver Chadwick of UC Santa Barbara to analyze biogeochemical gradients across the study areas. Vegetation changes over time, including the effects of human land use, will be explored by assistant professor and co-principal investigator Sara Hotchkiss of the University of Wisconsin, and by James Coil of UC Berkeley, who will be a post-doctoral student on the project.

Shripad Tuljapurkar of Stanford will spearhead the integration of the project findings with the use of mathematical modeling and computer simulation.