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A team of scientists from Japan have found evidence that the human settlement of the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific Ocean occurred almost immediately after those islands emerged from beneath the sea. Though it had been previously believed that a thousand years had to pass until these newly emerged islands had developed sufficient vegetation for humans to occupy them, the evidence from this study shows that humans not only showed up almost immediately, they acted to vegetate the island themselves in order to make it habitable.
The scientists drilled four cores just off the western shore of Laura Island, the largest island of Majuro Atoll, as well as thirteen trenches on that same island, in order to determine when the island first emerged from under the sea. They also excavated a well-preserved bank at the center of Laura Island to study the human occupation of the island.
What they found was that the Atoll emerged from underwater approximately 2000 years ago, triggered by a fall in sea level. More surprising, the first evidence of human settlement appeared to occur at almost the same time.
Based on carbon dating of charcoal fragments produced by earth ovens, the first human activity occurred less than 100 years after the island appeared. At that time, however, the island would have had little plant life, with few resources. It would have also been very exposed, with anything on the island easily destroyed by weather or water.
The evidence from the archeology was that “the first settlers did not wait for the natural vegetation succession to provide a favorable habitat; they started to make the land more habitable by themselves.” They planted coconut and pandanus trees. They practiced pit agriculture, the archeologists finding around 200 such pits. The earth ovens also showed evidence of both dolphin and whale bones, suggesting extensive fishing operations.
In a sense, this finding is not surprising. Anywhere we humans go, we immediately act to adapt the environment to make it more liveable. We do this on earth. We will do it in space, once we get there.
In fact, the actions of the early island pioneers in the mid-Pacific are a good if imperfect analogy for space exploration. Their environment was harsh and extremely isolated. It did not have a wide variety of resources from which they could rely. Yet, these early settlers figured out how to make that limited environment work for them so they could live there, even at a time when life would be hard if not impractical, at first glance.