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

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Andrew HendersonORCiD, Dr Helen Mackay, Dr Emma PearsonORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


The timing of human colonisation 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 new evidence for human dispersal into eastern Polynesia from islands to the west from around AD 900 and contemporaneous palaeoclimate data from the likely source region. Lake cores from Atiu, southern Cook Islands (SCI) register evidence of pig and 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 palaeoclimate 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 SCI. The evidence indicates a prolonged drought in the likely western source region for these colonists, lasting c. 200 to 400 years, 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 colonisation a century or two later. This incremental settlement process likely involved the accumulation of critical maritime knowledge over several generations.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Sear DA, Allen MS, Hassall JD, Maloney AE, Langdon PG, Morrison AE, Henderson ACG, Mackay H, Croudace IW, Clarke C, Sachs JP, Macdonald G, Chiverrell RC, Leng MJ, Cisneros-Dozal LM, Fonville T, Pearson E

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Year: 2020

Volume: 117

Issue: 16

Pages: 8813-8819

Print publication date: 21/04/2020

Online publication date: 06/04/2020

Acceptance date: 04/03/2020

Date deposited: 24/03/2020

ISSN (print): 0027-8424

ISSN (electronic): 1091-6490

Publisher: National Academy of Sciences


DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1920975117


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