Research HighlightsDigging into the History of Island LandscapesProf. Toru YamaguchiDepartment of Archaeology and EthnologyApr. 1, 2020
I have long conducted field excavations on islands in the Pacific Ocean—on the Cook Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Yaeyama Islands, and in Tuvalu and Palau. In the process, I have come to understand that island landscapes are the product of historical encounters and entanglements. With that in mind, I am currently exploring the historical relationship between weather hazards and island landscapes in the small coral atoll of Pukapuka in the Cook Islands together with a group of joint researchers in the fields of earth science and anthropology as well as the young islanders. Tropical cyclones, for example, can cause enormous damage to the low-lying islands of coral reefs, but when we look at the process of reconstruction, agricultural pits are re-dug and new varieties of taro—a vegetable originally brought as relief aid—have taken root. We have also realized that the Mexican primrose-willow that accompanies it is now used as a material to make the kikau broom, a Pukapukan specialty. In the midst of destruction and rebirth, the island landscape changes in dynamic ways.
Being surrounded by the sea on all sides, I meet a variety of researchers during my island stays. If you have the courage to ask, you can acquire expert knowledge of all sorts from the people around you. Looking back, I realize the island has always been a place of encounters and entanglements. This, of course, goes beyond my own personal experience. No terrestrial creatures, humans included, can survive in the middle of the sea. Those who choose to cross it will inevitably search for land wherever they can find it for as long as they live. Many things—humans, animals, and otherwise—have drifted onto island shores, their interactions creating and shifting the landscape, a phenomenon sure to continue far into the future.
Along this line of thinking, one could say that my research in and of itself is an act that affects the island landscape. Archaeological excavations, in particular, are a physical act of digging holes on the island, and the trenches we dig are often repurposed as garbage pits or banana crops. I have also experienced that my excavation sites and our findings are often incorporated into the island’s history by the next time I visit. I plan to stay in the trenches, digging deeper into my research, ever aware that my actions will inevitably alter the island landscape and the historical practice of the people who live there.