Think Out Loud

REBROADCAST: Oregon archaeologist shares what early island exploration could tell us about space travel

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Nov. 15, 2022 8:11 p.m. Updated: Nov. 23, 2022 8:40 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, March 21

Forecasts call for an exceptional showing during this year's Perseid meteor shower.

In a new book, University of Oregon archaeology professor Scott Fitzpatrick explains what the early explorers' travels from island to island has in common with exploring space where one might see a meteor shower like the one shown in this 2020 NASA file photo.



Space exploration and the potential habitability of other planets are on the cutting edge of scientific research. But University of Oregon archaeology professor Scott Fitzpatrick says humans made similar advances thousands of years ago when they traveled vast distances to populate remote islands.

Fitzpatrick compares early island exploration to space travel in a chapter he contributed to a new book. He joined us to talk about the parallels between the two and how looking to the past could make future space travel more successful.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The potential colonization of other planets is largely the stuff of speculation about the future. But an archaeologist at the University of Oregon says the past can also be helpful here as a guide, or maybe as a cautionary tale. In particular, Scott Fitzpatrick says that early human exploration of islands can shed light on the possibilities and the pitfalls of venturing past our own planet. That’s the subject of a chapter he wrote for a forthcoming book and he joins us now to talk about it. Scott Fitzpatrick, welcome.

Scott Fitzpatrick: Thanks for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. Before we get to the connections to space travel, I thought we could spend a little bit of time on island exploration itself. Humans have been settling in islands for tens of thousands of years, but what was different about what happened in the Pacific about 3,000 years ago?

Fitzpatrick: We have archaeological evidence around the world, mostly in the Indo-Pacific, of peoples getting out to places that required some kind of water crossing. We see places like Australia that was settled at least by 50,000 or 55,000 years ago. We see islands around New Guinea, settled a little bit later after that. It’s clear that humans have had the capability to get out to these places, but this would have only necessitated maybe very simple watercraft like rafts. In some cases, given the temperature of the water, which was pretty nice in the tropics, it could even have been swimmable between short distances.

Peoples in the Pacific began to hone their craft, develop more sophisticated watercraft, development of the sail is a big technology that really allowed people to harness the wind to move across these really fluid realms, and also the ability to navigate using stars, a form of kind of wayfinding. So as people began to experiment with a lot of different kinds of watercraft and different kinds of technologies and began to push the envelope, as it were, in terms of distances and time spent on water, we see what we call ‘voyaging nurseries,’ these places where people are experimenting and practicing their craft.

By about 3,000 years ago we really see a major pulse of activity into parts of Western Micronesia. So these are the islands east of the Philippines like Palau, where I’ve been doing research for a number of decades. The Marianas Islands like Guam and Saipan. And then a group of people move out of this region, these islands around New Guinea, and move eastward into places like New Caledonia, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and we call these people Lapita. And that happens about the same time and two different pulses of voyaging activity. That’s really different because this is the first time, in the Pacific, where people have ventured to a new landmass that they could not see. So the islands or land masses were not intervisible and they moved out into this place that we call ‘Remote Oceania.’

Miller: You mentioned that two big categories of innovations helped them do that - watercraft or sails or better boats, and also better navigation. But how much do they know about where they were going? Navigation? You need to know where you’re going, you need to know what direction you’re going in, where you are, but I would think you would also need to have a destination in mind for navigation to work. Did they know what was out there?

Fitzpatrick: Chances are they really didn’t know. They wouldn’t have been able to know exactly what was out there. But in part, this is explained by a concept that we call autocatalysis. The idea is that when we have these voyaging nurseries in places like the Pacific, people [are] practicing and honing their craft for thousands of years. They have lived and breathed in this island world, that’s really what they know. They go from one island to the next. They’re trading things, they’re moving families, they’re fishing, they’re doing all of these things that are part of survival in this kind of environment. And the idea of autocatalysis is that people basically had the expectation that there would be more out there. They wouldn’t have known how far away they were.

They wouldn’t have known how long it might have taken. But they had the expectation, and really the curiosity, that more Islands were out there to be discovered.

Miller: I can’t help but thinking of some of these explorers, almost like human versions of coconuts, just floating out there. And some are bound to find islands and then grow and settle there, and some are going to be lost and swept under.

Fitzpatrick: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We really don’t know what the survivability rates were for a lot of these early explorers. We know with European contact that peoples in Micronesia and East Polynesia, places like the Cook Islands and Tahiti, in French Polynesia, the contacts that Europeans had with these voyagers, they talked a lot about their exceptional capabilities and the boats that they had. And they had these double-hulled canoes which are kind of the basis for modern day catamarans, and they were able to sail very efficiently against the wind. They were able to go long distances and they had a big platform and, in some cases, a structure on top to house provisions and people. But we really don’t know how successful they were. And it’s something that I’ve written a little bit about, I call this the ‘seafaring paradox,’ in that, we’ll only have archaeological evidence for people who had a successful voyage. We’ll never be able to see evidence of people that did not.

Miller: What do we know about what drove these humans to explore new islands?


Fitzpatrick: That’s also a really good question. Archaeologists in the Pacific and elsewhere have talked a lot about this and there are probably a number of different reasons that probably are not that different from why people choose to migrate today, who are more landlubbers. People are pushed out as a result of conflict or there’s some reason behind why they think they can seek a better life somewhere. There’s also oral traditions in Polynesia that talk about select members of a group being banished and then being forced to leave, essentially. And there are some cases where we know that overpopulation was probably occurring and people were consuming too many resources. They were not able to grow enough food or to catch enough food to provide for their families. And simply, there was an impetus to move out elsewhere to find sort of better harvesting grounds or places to live.

Miller: How did these human arrivals change the islands that they settled upon, whether intentionally or by mistake?

Fitzpatrick: When we talk about peoples in the Pacific, especially during these later stages of exploration over the last 1,000 or 1,500 years - and this is really around the time when places like New Zealand and Hawaii and Easter Island and all of those islands in between are settled - we know that these were colonizing groups, because they brought with them plants and animals, domestics that they felt they needed to have to survive. And in many cases they were right. They really didn’t know what kinds of islands they were going to encounter, what sort of resources might be there, how big those islands might be. So they brought with them, in the case of the Pacific, dogs, pigs and chickens. They brought with them the rat, which may have been both intentional or accidental, we’re not really sure. And they brought with them crops like yams and taro, breadfruit.

These were things that were brought into these, what we call pristine environments. These islands had evolved over hundreds of thousands or in some cases millions of years without humans, certainly, but without the introduction of non-native plants and animals that could essentially out compete or destroy these native habitats. A lot of animal species, particularly birds, are very sensitive to rats and pigs and dogs, being preyed upon or destroying habitat. And then humans are agriculturalists, in this case. They’re clearing landscapes to plant crops to establish villages and we see an archaeological record, particularly in places like New Zealand and Hawaii, where a lot of these birds over time have developed the inability to fly. They’re flightless birds, they’re ground dwelling and ground nesting and any type of habitat eradication, the introduction of these new animals, really did a lot to destroy and drive to extinction or extirpation, a lot of these species.

Miller: Some connections right there between what you’re just talking about and the conversation we had just before, with the lark.

So you’ve just given us a 10 minute, very short version of what we could spend a lifetime learning about, the peopling of these remote islands. But just in those 10 minutes, the differences between humans going to an island in the Pacific and, say, humans going to Mars, they seem so gigantic, technologically and atmospherically in so many ways, that I’m curious what the similarities are?

Fitzpatrick: There was an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii. His name was Ben Finney and he was one of the co-founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. If you can remember back to the 1970s and 80s, and something that’s still ongoing today, actually, they developed a replica of a Polynesian double-hulled canoe called the Hōkūleʻa, and they did this for a number of reasons. But the primary one was to show that using traditional navigational or wayfinding techniques, and to a certain degree, those kinds of boat technologies that Polynesians could have settled Hawaii from places like Tahiti over these vast distances.

Back in the 1990s, in a series of book chapters, he wrote about how this was kind of reminiscent of how we, as humans, have conceptualized going into space. So we have peoples in the Pacific who thousands of years ago made this leap of faith. They were curious about what was out there. They were pretty sure that there were other livable habitats and they wanted to move, for whatever reason. And they brought with them the things they needed to survive in these concepts of how to modify landscapes, something that we call ‘transported landscapes.’

This really piqued my interest because, well, while Ben Finney had kind of put this out on the table, I really thought more in terms of the human impacts that would be occurring and how we can conceive of islands as . . . we call them ‘model systems.’ So these are bounded environments, they’re surrounded by water, they are not easy to traverse and despite people like Michael Phelps, humans are not really good swimmers naturally. These aquatic realms are barriers to not only humans moving there, but also plants and animals and things that really can’t disperse well over open water. So we see a lot of birds getting to islands, but we don’t see a lot of larger mammals and things like that.

This kind of got me interested a little bit more in the human idea of going out and colonizing other places. One of the things that we see, archaeologically, is people getting out to islands. They’re disrupting environments. But humans for the most part - if archaeology and history have anything to say - really don’t consider what it means to settle places for the first time, the ramifications of humans being there, of removing landscapes, of bringing in non-native plants and animals. And I think that’s a philosophical dilemma that we’re kind of seeing playing out, as we discuss spacefaring. And so just yesterday, we sent a new rocket to go around the moon…

Miller: With dummies on it…

Fitzpatrick: With dummies on it. An uncrewed space venture, but in anticipation of testing the feasibility and some other ideas about how we can get back to the moon, which we haven’t done in quite some time. The moon is a stepping stone for going to Mars, where we’ve already had these rovers collecting data in anticipation of potentially going there. And there’s a lot more discussion about that.

Miller: If you could take the Elon Musks of the world, the Mars colonizer champions, to a specific place on some Pacific island as a kind of object lesson, where would you take them?

Fitzpatrick: Well, jeez, that’s a really great example. Hawaii is perhaps one. But it’s really difficult, I think, for people to see visibly what changes have been made by humans over time. I think one really good example is [the] island of Nauru, in Micronesia. This was an island that had very dense and abundant phosphate. It began to be mined in the late 1800s, early 1900s for a number of decades. Nauru became a very wealthy nation because of it, but then they ultimately ran out of that resource. And it’s virtually an uninhabitable landscape. It’s a moonscape that’s been just destroyed by mining.

We also have places like the Maldives, the capital of Male, you wouldn’t even know it’s an atoll by looking at it. These atolls are just a few feet above sea level and we have these condominiums and high rises and very dense populations. This is a really good example of how population can go out of control, how we can exploit resources to the point where that whole environment is basically destroyed and really not livable for people anymore. This is something that we see happening over and over again in very remote and marginal environments. So the Elon Musks of this world would say, ‘let’s, go to Mars and let’s find a way to mine things,’ but we know very little about the ancient past of Mars and whether there was life at one point. Do we as a species, decide to do what we’ve kind of always done, and think about the wealth we can garner from places like this, without the long term ramifications and implications to life?

Miller: Scott Fitzpatrick. Let’s talk again because there’s a lot of stuff I wanted to ask you about that I ran out of time for, but it was a pleasure talking to you.

Fitzpatrick: Thank you. Sure. Thanks again for having me.

Miller: Scott Fitzpatrick is a professor of archaeology and an associate director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon.

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