As humans have colonized new places, they often set-off dramatic environmental change, and this applies even to small, mobile populations in the distant past. In August (2016), Simon Haberle travelled to the far western Indian Ocean islands of the Comoros in search of evidence for the first inhabitants, their origins and the transformative impacts they may have had on the biodiversity of these islands. The possibility that the earliest inhabitants may have been Austronesian speakers from the Indonesian region who sailed across the Indian Ocean around 1500 years ago, occupying Madagascar and the smaller stepping stone islands of the Comoros, has long been debated.
This research aims to contribute to our understanding of the nature and timing of human colonization of the Indo-Pacific region and to answer the question of when and from where people first inhabited the far flung islands of the western Indian Ocean. During his 2 weeks on the islands of Ngazidja and Nzwani, he was able to collect sedimentary archives that will reveal the environmental and biodiversity changes that have occurred over the last few thousand years, from the time when no people lived on the islands through to the present, where we see massive changes in the form of reduced forest cover, introduced crop plants, fire and soil erosion. The cores collected have been returned to the archaeology lab in CHL and will be analysed for microscopic evidence of environmental change.
One of the key questions in human history centers on the capacity for humans to transform ecosystems and climate worldwide, which includes most recently the notion of the Anthropocene. Examining colonization of islands provides powerful natural experiments for better understanding human influence and disentangling the relative role of humans versus climate in driving global change. The importance of human agency in shaping island environments around the world is currently hotly debated and archaeological and palaeoecological approaches being developed in CHL are poised to provide new insights. Simon hopes to return to the islands in 2017 to report on the preliminary results of the expedition and to continue his exploration of these fascinating islands.