Cli­mate Wars


mailife - - Contents - By DR. PA­TRICK NUNN

From where the rat­tly pickup truck dropped us, it took nearly three hours to reach the sum­mit of Se­se­leka, a moun­tain on the is­land of Vanua Levu in Fiji. The lower part of the climb took us through pine forests, then into less dense wood­land on steeper slopes, made slip­pery by re­cent rain. The track was an el­e­vated path­way fol­low­ing a nar­row ridge­line that fell away steeply on ei­ther side; called tua, such path­ways were once the main lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion on these moun­tain­ous is­lands. The first signs of for­ti­fi­ca­tion made me for­get my fa­tigue. There was a pile of rocks, roughly oval-shaped, rep­re­sent­ing a yavu, or house foun­da­tion. Its po­si­tion made clear it was a guard­house, in­tended to check the ad­vance of un­wanted vis­i­tors to the moun­tain­top com­mu­nity. There were more guard­houses at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, and then, across the ridge, the re­mains of stone walls and de­fen­sive ditches. When func­tional 200 years or more ago, these ditches likely fea­tured rows of sharp­ened sticks—de­signed to skewer would-be ag­gres­sors—pro­trud­ing from their bases. Abruptly, trees gave way to bare rock, sheer faces up which we scram­bled in­del­i­cately, buf­feted by the winds that sud­denly hit us. The top of Se­se­leka, at 1,400 feet above sea level, is flat, roughly four times the size of a U.S. foot­ball field, and al­most en­tirely fringed by sheer cliffs. There are a few stunted trees, a rock-lined pond (my guides used the Fi­jian word tobu, which means “well,” sug­gest­ing it is ar­ti­fi­cial), and the re­mains of per­haps 20 house plat­forms. Most of these are large enough to have been res­i­den­tial, but a few smaller ones on the high­est parts of the moun­tain­top were prob­a­bly look­out posts. The views in ev­ery di­rec­tion are stun­ning, although when peo­ple lived atop Se­se­leka, they prob­a­bly val­ued the site more for prag­matic rea­sons—namely, to build hill­forts (for­ti­fied set­tle­ments built atop hills or moun­tains). For the lit­tle-known “hill­fort pe­riod” of Fiji’s his­tory, from about A.D. 1400 to 1850, was a time of con­flict through­out this and most other trop­i­cal Pa­cific is­land groups. If you have ever vis­ited Fiji, chances are you spent most of your time on the coast. And why wouldn’t you? Ever since peo­ple first reached these re­mote is­lands around 3,100 years ago, they have fa­vored coastal lo­ca­tions and food re­sources. Ten years ago, my re­search team dis­cov­ered what are Fiji’s ear­li­est-known set­tle­ments, in the south­west part of the largest is­land. To our as­ton­ish­ment, when we ex­ca­vated we found nu­mer­ous post­holes—show­ing that, dur­ing the ear­li­est pe­riod of set­tle­ment, peo­ple were liv­ing not di­rectly on the land but in houses built on stilt plat­forms stretch­ing out across the fring­ing coral reef. From the ev­i­dence they left be­hind, we in­fer they ate their fill of shell­fish, fish, tur­tles, and many reef-sur­face foods. To judge from the time some of these peo­ple must have spent man­u­fac­tur­ing in­tri­cately

dec­o­rated pot­tery and shell jew­elry, ac­quir­ing food must have been com­par­a­tively easy. The rel­a­tive abun­dance of food in coastal ar­eas, both on­shore and off­shore, meant that al­most ev­ery­one in Fiji lived close to the sea from the time of first set­tle­ment 3,100 years ago un­til about 600 years ago—when, sud­denly, ev­ery­thing changed pro­foundly. Within a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions, most coastal set­tle­ments in Fiji ap­pear to have been aban­doned in fa­vor of new ones in up­land, in­land lo­ca­tions. Many of these were for­ti­fied, prob­a­bly in re­sponse to the out­break of war­fare. Set­tle­ments shifted and con­flict erupted in al­most all Pa­cific is­land groups at about the same time, point­ing to a re­gion-wide trig­ger rather than a series of un­con­nected lo­cal ones. In is­land worlds, sea-level change—be­cause of its in­ti­mate links with coastal-food avail­abil­ity—pro­vides just such a trig­ger, and it is likely that the fall of sea level be­tween about A.D. 1250 and 1350 in the Pa­cific was be­hind this calami­tous so­ci­etal re­sponse. If so, this demon­strates that in the past, is­land peo­ples were dis­pro­por­tion­ately ex­posed to cli­mate change, just as many sci­en­tists say they will be in the im­mi­nent fu­ture. Through sea-level fall and its ef­fects on coastal-food avail­abil­ity, cli­mate change up­ended Fi­jian so­ci­ety within a few gen­er­a­tions. Fiji’s hill­forts are called ko­roni­valu (lit­er­ally, “war towns”). Re­cent field sur­veys have fo­cused on the re­mote west­ern part of Vanua Levu, the sec­ond largest is­land in the ar­chi­pel­ago. This was one of the first ar­eas to be reg­u­larly vis­ited by Euro­peans, who came to trade for san­dal­wood and bêche-de­mer (sea cu­cum­ber) and left a num­ber of writ­ten de­scrip­tions of the hill­forts. The ear­li­est ac­count dates from 1808, but it was Com­modore Wilkes of the United States Ex­plor­ing Ex­pe­di­tion who in the 1840s noted that there was “a town perched on the very top” of Se­se­leka. There were oth­ers around as well. With a com­mon fo­cus on geoar­chae­ol­ogy, my team and I have been work­ing on re­con­struct­ing an­cient sites and en­vi­ron­ments in the Fiji Is­lands for more than 15 years. For all this time, the core team has in­cluded a ge­og­ra­pher (my­self), a ge­ol­o­gist, and an ar­chae­ol­o­gist. Over the course of two weeks in Jan­uary, we iden­ti­fied and mapped five hill­forts in the area, and lo­cal res­i­dents told us sto­ries of many more. We are head­ing back to the Se­se­leka area in July to un­cover more of its lost his­tory. There is a rich vein of oral tra­di­tion in Fiji, and it in­cludes sto­ries about hill­forts. We heard sto­ries about when Se­se­leka was last be­sieged—per­haps in the 1860s. At that time, most com­bat­ants had re­cently con­verted to Chris­tian­ity, so hos­til­i­ties ceased on Sun­days, al­low­ing the oc­cu­pants of the Se­se­leka hill­fort to scurry down to the sea, fill their pots with shell­fish and other seafood, and re­treat up­hill ready to fight again on Mon­day with a full stom­ach. (Not sur­pris­ingly, this is said to have pro­longed the siege.) The re­mains of bro­ken pots and ed­i­ble shell­fish scat­tered across the sum­mit tes­tify to this sce­nario. Through our ex­ca­va­tions on the top of Se­se­leka, we dis­cov­ered the re­mains of the ear­li­est shell­fish that were con­sumed there. Us­ing ra­dio­car­bon dat­ing, we plan to de­ter­mine the age of these shell­fish re­mains and thus the time when peo­ple first es­tab­lished this hill­fort. An­other clue as to the func­tion of Se­se­leka lies in its name. Sese means “to run away, depart, per­haps to flee (from dan­ger),” while leka means “nar­row”—a nar­row place. So the name Se­se­leka may re­call a time when peo­ple fled up­s­lope to a place ac­ces­si­ble only along a nar­row path. Other up­land place names in the area can be in­ter­preted the same way. For ex­am­ple, a rock pas­sage con­nect­ing two hill­forts on a ridge­line is named Osoabukete, mean­ing that some­one who is preg­nant can­not squeeze through. Se­se­leka is one of per­haps a hun­dred or more hill­forts in the Fiji Is­lands. A Fiji colo­nial of­fi­cer in the late 19th cen­tury con­sid­ered hill­forts ubiq­ui­tous: “Al­most ev­ery im­por­tant hill­top in west­ern Viti Levu [is­land] is crowned with an en­trench­ment of some kind,” he wrote. Why were they es­tab­lished? The like­li­est ex­pla­na­tion is cli­mate change.

In the Pa­cific in the year A.D. 1200, the cli­mate had been warm­ing and sea level (ever the close com­pan­ion of tem­per­a­ture) had been ris­ing for sev­eral hun­dred years. Given that coastal set­tle­ments were rel­a­tively easy to move, sea-level rise at that time was not the stres­sor on hu­man liveli­hoods that it is to­day. In ad­di­tion, sea­sons were reg­u­lar and pre­dictable, and through­out most of the Pa­cific Is­lands re­gion, so­ci­eties were bur­geon­ing, pop­u­la­tions were grow­ing, and hi­er­ar­chies were emerg­ing. Then, be­tween about A.D. 1250 and 1350—dur­ing what’s called the A.D. 1300 Event—the cli­mate cooled rapidly and sea level fell. The lat­ter was key. Imag­ine you are liv­ing on a small­ish is­land in the mid­dle of the Pa­cific. You live on the coast, you grow crops on the fer­tile, well-wa­tered coastal plain, and you sup­ple­ment your diet with food from the ad­ja­cent coral reef and la­goon. Then sea level falls, per­haps by 20–30 inches. Your crops wither be­cause the wa­ter ta­ble within the coastal plain has dropped by the same amount, and their roots prove too short. The sur­face of the coral reef—its most pro­duc­tive part—be­comes per­ma­nently ex­posed, and ev­ery­thing liv­ing on it dies. The la­goon bounded by the reef be­comes murky be­cause wa­ter cir­cu­la­tion is re­stricted, and most liv­ing things that once thrived in it no longer do so. At the end of the pe­riod of sea-level fall, the food avail­able to you in what was once your coastal idyll has de­creased by 80 per­cent. What do you do? His­tory sug­gests that you try to grab what your neigh­bors have, and that, when they re­sist, you try to kill them. Where no other op­tions re­main, con­flict be­comes ha­bit­ual and you have to leave your coastal lo­ca­tion—be­cause it has no nat­u­ral de­fenses—and move some­where that can be for­ti­fied. And this seems to be the likely ex­pla­na­tion for the es­tab­lish­ment of Fiji’s hill­forts. Sea-level fall (driven by cool­ing) dur­ing the A.D. 1300 Event—an event that led up to the Lit­tle Ice Age—caused a rapid and en­dur­ing food cri­sis along Fiji’s coasts that re­sulted in con­flict and the move­ment of peo­ple into the hills, where they re­mained for sev­eral hun­dred years. Lit­tle is known to­day about the hill­forts, which is the main mo­ti­va­tion for our re­search project, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the Fiji Mu­seum, the Uni­ver­sity of the South Pa­cific, and the Uni­ver­sity of the Sun­shine Coast (Aus­tralia). There is strong ev­i­dence link­ing the pro­found so­ci­etal changes that oc­curred at the start of Fiji’s hill­fort pe­riod to cli­mate change. But only solid chronolo­gies of cli­mate change and so­ci­etal change from places like Se­se­leka can ul­ti­mately prove that past hu­man so­ci­eties in is­land coun­tries like Fiji were fun­da­men­tally and in­vol­un­tar­ily re­con­fig­ured by cli­mate change. We think Fijians have a right to know about this pe­riod of Fiji’s his­tory. Yet they know very lit­tle about it, be­cause of what hap­pened around the time hill­forts were fi­nally aban­doned in the mid-19th cen­tury. By all ac­counts, it

was a per­fect storm. By the start of the 19th cen­tury, coastal re­sources had re­cov­ered from the ef­fects of the A.D. 1300 sea-level fall, thereby re­mov­ing one of the main rea­sons for the con­flict. In fact, many of the ear­li­est writ­ten ac­counts of fight­ing in Fiji and other Pa­cific is­land groups noted its by-then rit­u­al­ized na­ture: lots of rude lan­guage, many feints and bluff at­tacks, but rel­a­tively few ca­su­al­ties. Then Euro­peans ar­rived on Fiji’s shores, in­ad­ver­tently in­tro­duc­ing dis­eases like measles and in­fluenza, which the In­dige­nous peo­ple had never be­fore ex­pe­ri­enced. Their lack of re­sis­tance led to epi­demics; on some is­lands, it has been es­ti­mated that around 80 per­cent of the In­dige­nous peo­ple died as a re­sult. En­tire vil­lages were aban­doned, giv­ing Euro­pean set­tlers the no­tion that the coun­try was nearly empty, which en­cour­aged land “pur­chases” for neg­li­gi­ble amounts. The re­main­ing In­dige­nous peo­ple ques­tioned their tra­di­tional be­lief sys­tems, leav­ing the path clear for Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies to con­vert al­most ev­ery­one within a few decades. Fijians were taught to for­get their “hea­then” past, es­pe­cially the time most re­cent in their minds, which was the pe­riod of con­flict man­i­fested by the hill­fort pe­riod. And that is why hardly any­one re­mem­bers any­thing about it to­day. What hap­pened then is sim­i­lar to what many peo­ple—res­i­dents and sci­en­tists alike—ob­serve hap­pen­ing on Pa­cific is­lands to­day. Sea level is ris­ing, in­un­dat­ing coastal set­tle­ments and their food gar­dens, lead­ing to any num­ber of doomsday sce­nar­ios for the fu­ture. There is no ques­tion that is­land so­ci­eties are un­usu­ally ex­posed to the man­i­fes­ta­tions of cli­mate change, es­pe­cially sea-level change. In our presently glob­al­ized world, it is un­likely that “adap­ta­tion” will in­volve con­flict so se­vere that peo­ple will need to re­build and oc­cupy hill­forts. Yet the ru­ins stand to­day, craggy sen­tinels tow­er­ing over the peo­ple of the low­lands, stark re­minders of the fragility of life on is­lands in the mid­dle of the world’s oceans.

Dr Nunn is no stranger to Fiji hav­ing done ex­ten­sive work through­out the Is­lands for the Uni­ver­sity of the South Pa­cific, his re­search in­ter­ests in­clude geoar­chae­ol­ogy, geo­haz­ards and cli­mate change - he is one of the named In­ter­na­tional Panel on Cli­mate Change sci­en­tists who shared the 2007 No­bel Peace Prize. He has au­thored more than 200 peer­re­viewed publi­ca­tions in­clud­ing sev­eral books in­clud­ing Oceanic Is­lands (Black­well, 1994), En­vi­ron­men­tal Change in the Pa­cific Basin (Wi­ley, 1999), Cli­mate, En­vi­ron­ment and So­ci­ety in the Pa­cific dur­ing the Last Mil­len­nium (El­se­vier, 2007), and the pop­u­lar Van­ished Is­lands and Hid­den Con­ti­nents of the Pa­cific (Uni­ver­sity of Hawai’i Press, 2009).

On top of the hill­fort of Korolevu in Bua... The hill­fort of Uluina­siva is in the dis­tance on the left.

Aus­tralian stu­dent Me­lanie Har­ris stands in the gate­way to a walled com­pound, likely to have been a chiefly en­clo­sure, con­tain­ing sev­eral stone foun­da­tions of dwellings and a meet­ing house.

Re­searchers from the Fiji Mu­seum and the Uni­ver­sity of the Sun­shine Coast (Aus­tralia) pose in the shadow of the mas­sive rock shel­ter of Uluinavakasiga in Bua.

View from the top of the hill­fort of Korolevu in Bua

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