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Archaeology Colloquium in Tahiti Sparks Collaboration

Archaeologists ask questions in their search for knowledge. They ask the dirt they excavate to reveal a narrative of the past. They coax out patterns in the data they compile. They ask ancient bones to tell a story. However, to build a nuanced approximation of the past, they ask questions of each other.

“Collaboration is a vital part of the archeological process,” said Dr. Jenny Kahn, Associate Professor of Anthropology at William & Mary.

An Overdue Gathering 

Intending to both share and learn, Kahn and graduate students Claudia Escue and Caroline Watson, and undergraduate student Caroline Donovan traveled to the island of Tahiti over the Thanksgiving break to attend a colloquium titled, “At the heart of the Polynesian Triangle: Assessment and perspectives of Polynesian archaeology."

The colloquium, held November 22 to 24, 2022 at the University of French Polynesia, was sponsored in part by CIRAP (International Center for Archaeological Research on Polynesia), of which Kahn is a member. Roughly 50 scholars from multiple countries gathered to share research, debate and discuss ideas, develop new collaborations, and chart the next research chapter in Eastern Polynesia.

The last conference dedicated specifically to Eastern Polynesia occurred 22 years ago. Kahn, who has worked in the region for nearly three decades and has led excavations on several island groups in Eastern Polynesia, said the colloquium was long overdue.

Environment and Adaptation Lead the Conversation

If there was one overriding theme at the colloquium it was the environment.

Polynesian islands are a natural laboratory to study ecological adaptation since they were colonized by a single cultural group in a relatively short amount of time. Since today’s islanders are dealing with the effects of climate change, understanding how and why groups made hard decisions to remain sustainable is relevant.

“Archeologists are very good at understanding resilience and sustainability in terms of human cultures,” Kahn said.

Kahn led her team by presenting new data on coastal sites in the Society Islands. Her analysis demonstrates that behavior was impacted as much by the ecology of the place as by the resources and cultural tools that early colonizers brought with them.

Understanding how sustainability and social complexity interact was the heart of Escue’s co-authored paper with Kahn. They analyzed the agricultural landscape on Rurutu Island in the Australs, demonstrating the impact the environment had on political complexity.

Watson presented a paper on the landscape, religion, and social complexity on Mo’orea. Again, the research demonstrated that there is an interplay between natural landscapes, hierarchy, and cultural identity.

By analyzing authorship and gender in peer-reviewed journals, Donovan and coauthor Kahn exposed the overlooked inequity that privileges the male gaze in Pacific archaeology. Their research showed that in regionally-focused academic journals, 70 percent of the time first authors were male—a disparity that has implications for the advancement of women in academics.

“Exposing my students to opportunities like the conference, where they can envision themselves in the future of the field, is important,” she said. “Our interpretations of the past are sharper when there are multiple perspectives, including women and indigenous voices.”

Next steps in Pacific Island Archeology

To end the gathering, scientists identified two regions where data was spotty: The Tuamotu and Austral Archipelagos.

“Luckily I just started a new project that will help fill that lacuna in our knowledge,” said Kahn, who plans to return to the Australs next year.

Since returning to the U.S., Kahn reached out to several other participants with follow-up requests on their research that would impact her research and those of her graduate students. Likewise, William & Mary presentations continue to garner inquiry from colleagues abroad.