Hawaiian Biocomplexity Project
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Professor Patrick V. Kirch
Archaeological Research Facility
2251 College Ave.
University of California, Berkeley Berkeley, CA 94720
Kohala field system

Hawaiian Biocomplexity Project

by Patrick V. Kirch
(in .pdf format)

Oceanic islands—and the Hawaiian archipelago in particular—offer unique opportunities for understanding the fundamental mechanisms underlying diverse areas of study, from evolutionary radiation and speciation of organisms, through ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry, to the evolution of human culture. Because Hawaii presents exquisite possibilities for constraining analyses of ecosystems, human demography and economics, and cultural and social responses to environmental change, the archipelago also presents an ideal region for understanding complex interactions between human populations and their environments. In Hawaii such interactions can be tracked over a time frame of about 1200 years. During this period between the discovery and colonization of the archipelago by humans and the arrival of Europeans, archaeological research reveals the emergence of a highly complex island civilization which by A.D. 1700 had approached the level of an “archaic state.” In Hawaii, historical anthropologists and natural scientists have the opportunity to study the emergence of such complexity in the context of dynamic coupling with natural systems.

In 2001, in response to the National Science Foundation’s call for proposals to research dynamically-coupled human and natural systems (a subprogram within the Biocomplexity prograqm of NSF), a multi-institutional team including Prof. Kirch and the OAL submitted a proposal to study Human Ecodynamics in the Hawaiian Ecosystem, 1200-200 Years B.P. (NSF proposal 0119819, available for download as Adobe .pdf) The University of California at Berkeley is the lead institution in this project, which was awarded by NSF on 12/01/01 for a 3-year period. In addition to Prof. Kirch, the other key co-principal investigators and their institutions who are collaborating on this project are:

Prof. Peter Vitousek, Stanford University (ecosystem dynamics)
Prof. Shripad Tuljapurkar, Stanford University (demographic and resource modeling)
Prof. Michael Graves, University of Hawaii (archaeology)
Prof. Thegn Ladefoged, University of Washington (archaeology and GIS modeling)
Prof. Oliver Chadwick, University of California, Santa Barbara (soil science)
Prof. Sara Hotchkiss, University of Wisconsin (archaeobotany)
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Our project addresses four interconnected research themes: (1) the spatio-temporal processes of agricultural development, as these were linked to geomorphic and biogeochemical gradients and landscape mosaics; (2) patterns of demographic change, including the shift from a largely density-independent to density-dependent situation, and how these were linked to resource use and agricultural intensification; (3) the emergence over a 300-500 year period of socio-political complexity, including elaborate formal control hierarchies, pronounced disparities in access to resources, and control over labor and surplus; and (4) the dynamic effects of a growing population and evolving culture on its natural resource base, including not only agricultural land but also upland forests and other biotic resources. The project aims to further the integration of spatial approaches in archaeology, especially designed to illuminate land use patterns over time. It introduces biogeochemical variability into the mix of factors that affected human development over time in this relatively well-controlled environmental context. And, it introduces a more realistic treatment of human history, population and culture into studies of soil and ecosystem dynamics, over both space and time.

Our research is being carried out in two primary study sites: the Kahikinui district of Maui Island, and the Kohala district of Hawai’i Island. As such it builds on previous archaeological research results obtained by the OAL team in Kahikinui (see Kahikinui Project), and by the University of Hawaii in Kohala (see UH Manoa web site), as well extensive ecological and pedological research by Vitousek, Chadwick, and Hotchkiss in the Kohala region.

The project team has now completed one season of fieldwork in Kahikinui and Kohala (May-August 2002), and is in the process of carrying out laboratory work and planning for a second field season in 2003. Research results will be posted as updates to this web site as they become available.

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Photo courtesy of Patrick Kirch.