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  • The Growth and Collapse of Pacific Island Societies: Archeological and Demographic Perspectives
  • Terry L. Hunt
The Growth and Collapse of Pacific Island Societies: Archeological and Demographic Perspectives, edited by Patrick V Kirch and Jean-Louis Rallu. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8248-3134-9, xvi + 390 pages, maps, notes, bibliography, index. US$35.00.

Although not always at the fore, historical demography is among the most significant dimensions for understanding the evolution of human societies. In the Pacific, anthropological and other integrated research—ranging from island colonization to resource use, subsistence, human-induced environmental impacts (eg, deforestation and extinctions), social complexity, cultural elaboration (eg, monumentality), collapse, and contact induced genocide—have drawn on demography, or at least implicit assumptions about evolutionary trends in population. This volume edited by Patrick V Kirch and Jean-Louis Rallu considers demography from historical and archaeological perspectives for an impressive array of Pacific Island cases. The collection is the result of an invited workshop on demographic evolution held on the idyllic shores of Paopao Bay on the island of Mo'orea, French Polynesia, in December 2003. The sixteen chapters offer readers an up-to-date review of mainstream anthropological demography and recent applications in the region. At the same time, the authors of these chapters—some more explicitly than others—acknowledge and sometimes illustrate the difficulties remaining in efforts to evaluate models of ancient population size and dynamics.

Kirch and Rallu (chapter 1) frame the focus of the book with substantive questions concerning the size and density of Pacific Island populations at contact, and thus the resulting severity of demographic collapse. These substantive questions have been debated for decades, drawing on estimates of early European visitors, later missionary censes, and now a critical assessment that drops the ball squarely in the court of archaeologists. Kirch and Rallu embed long-term demographic evolution in questions that pervade the evolutionary dynamics of island (and other) societies.

In chapter 2, Rallu illustrates the frustrating complexity—indeed the many significant yet often unknowable details—of demographic models for prehistoric Pacific Islands. Slight changes in growth rates, colonization dates, or the number of people in a founding population result in dramatically different outcomes. The magnitude of difference resulting from such slight changes provides a reality check for anyone tempted to take specific arguments about prehistoric population too seriously. The contributors to this volume share caution on this point. While critical values remain unknown, Rallu shows how working backward from census data and recorded epidemics permits another estimation of population size around the time of European contact.

In a welcome theoretical contribution to the volume (chapter 3), Shripad Tuljapurkar and colleagues address the critically important issue of population and resources in terms of Malthusian limits. Whether or not it is acknowledged explicitly, this [End Page 207] relationship is the basis for most of the thinking in demographic evolution—for humans and other animals. The authors go on to consider the interaction of soils, plants, and food production in human-environmental dynamics.

The next four chapters (4, 5, 6, 7) describe archaeological and historical approaches to population in the Hawaiian Islands, the focus of much recent debate. As Kirch and Rallu describe in chapter 1, archaeologists have attempted to measure relative and absolute population values using oesteological data (eg, fertility and life history aspects), settlement counts by temporal units, dating curves (ie, "dates as data" for human use of landscapes), and estimations of environmental carrying capacity (usually meant to be assessments of maximum, average, or sustainable productivity, particularly in agriculture). Archaeologists have routinely considered one or more of these analytical dimensions in case studies, although oesteological studies are not represented here. In chapter 6, regarding his research in Kahikinui, Maui, Kirch provides a concise, well-researched exemplar of estimating absolute population values from an archaeological case. From these values, in turn, there are implications for density and rates of growth. I suggest that this is as good as it gets in carefully, and critically, using archaeological data in paleo-demographic research. While difficult to say with greater certainty, as Kirch cautions, working backwards from historic census records to estimate the degree of population decline—indeed...


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