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New microfossil approaches and multi-proxy analysis reveal precontact Polynesian plant translocations and use, Marquesas Islands

by Mark Horrocks last modified 2023-06-29 05:48 AM

Horrocks M, Allen MS, Fox A. 2023. Environmental Archaeology, doi: 10.1080/14614103.2023.2226477.


This analysis of microfossils (pollen, phytoliths, starch) from sites on Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands builds on previous paleoethnobotanical studies and reports new technical approaches to Araceae (aroid) identification. Results show direct evidence of plant translocations, crop production, and wild plant gathering consistent with ethnographic accounts, with samples dating from the settlement period (thirteenth century AD) through to western contact. Four Polynesian translocations are identified: Colocasia esculenta, a second possible Araceae, Musa sp., and Cordyline fruticosa. Another three taxa include potentially both translocated and native varieties: Cocos nucifera, Pandanus tectorius, and Morinda citrifolia.

Several lines of evidence are brought to bear on the C. esculenta identifications. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) is used to obtain images of higher magnification and resolution relative to light microscopy of the mostly degraded starch. Elemental analysis of raphides, embedded in cf. C. esculenta starch masses, confirms the presence of calcium, providing further evidence that this smallest of Pacific cultigen starch is C. esculenta. Xylem and phenolic inclusions consistent with this species are also identified. As plant taxa vary considerably in their production and preservation of different tissue types, the study shows the value of combined plant microfossil approaches.


Plant microfossils, Pacific archaeobotany, agriculture, plant introductions, cultigens, Colocasia esculenta.

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