Marshall I. Weisler & Ashleigh Rogers

Marine Molluscs Indicate Sustainable Harvesting, Food Choice, and Trade in Pacific Islands Prehistory

Marine molluscs are ubiquitous in coastal Pacific Island archaeological sites and assemblages have been used for routinely addressing human impacts or foraging pressure and less often for documenting long-term sustainability of resources. Shellfish can also indicate prehistoric food choice or preferential selection of one of several closely related species. In rare circumstances, shellfish provide evidence of prehistoric interaction or so-called trade and exchange. These topics are examined by using data from the atoll archipelago of the Marshall Islands (eastern Micronesia), the raised limestone or makatea island of Henderson in the Pitcairn Group, and the high volcanic island of Moloka‘i in the Hawaiian Islands. A 1500-year record from Utrōk Atoll in the northern Marshall Islands documents sustainable use of marine shellfish probably due to low human populations living on a small island with a huge expanse of ocean-facing and lagoonal reef. In Hawaii, the late prehistoric record and contemporary practice both point to preferential selection of the yellowfoot limpet or ‘alinalina (Cellana sandwicensis) despite the close proximity of two other species in the same genus. Six centuries of prehistoric interaction was documented for Henderson Island by charting the frequency of black-lipped pearlshell (Pinctada margaritifera) imported from neighbouring Mangareva—some 400 km distant. Despite the contrasting island types and their unique inshore environments, prehistoric fishers collected a broad range of taxa, yet targeted only one or two species that represented the majority of the assemblages by weight.

Keywords: sustainability, prehistoric trade, food choice, Marshall Islands, Pitcairn Group, Moloka‘i (Hawaiian Islands)

Figure: North Beach, Henderson Island, a raised limestone (makatea) island in the Pitcairn Group, southeast Polynesia. Occupied for at least four centuries since AD 1200, black-lipped pearlshell (Pinctada margaritifera), used for fishhook manufacture, was imported here from Mangareva located 400 km west. (© Marshall Weisler)