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  • On the Margins of Sustainability, Prehistoric Settlement of Utrok Atoll, Northern Marshall Islands
  • Rosalind L. Hunter-Anderson
On the Margins of Sustainability, Prehistoric Settlement of Utrok Atoll, Northern Marshall Islands. Marshall I. Weisler. BAR International Series 967, Oxford: Archaeopress, 2001. xiii + 144 pp., illustrations, maps, bibliography, appendices. $42.00. ISBN 1-84171-254-X.

On the Margins of Sustainability is a well-produced and important addition to the growing literature on the archaeology of small tropical coral islands. The new facts, [End Page 158] collected systematically and reported in considerable detail, are especially welcome given the general paucity of published information on Micronesian archaeology. (The work could have used a thorough copy editing to catch the typos and verb/person mismatches, however.) In eight chapters and three appendices, and illustrated with numerous maps, drawings, and black and white photographs by the author, the monograph reports the results of surveys and excavations conducted by Weisler and Marshallese colleagues in seven islets of Utrok Atoll in the northern Marshalls. The Utrok research is part of a more comprehensive project of archaeological documentation instigated by the author some ten years ago. This project has included surveys and excavations at Epoon, Wujae, and Maloelap Atolls in addition to Utrok. Students at the University of Otago participated in the initial processing and subsequent laboratory analyses of the data, resulting so far in three Master's theses, the present report, and publications elsewhere by Weisler.

The fieldwork at Utrok Atoll was carried out when Weisler was Chief Archaeologist for the Republic of the Marshall Islands from 1993-1995 and subsequently. From having lived in the islands for several years, as well as having worked in a variety of settings in the tropical Pacific, he has become attuned to the ethnographic and geographic realities of small islands. For example his comments about current fishing practices and their relation to marine habitat attributes and current Marshallese subsistence options enhance the exposition beyond what researchers with less experience and cultural sensitivity might have produced.

The "long-term goal" of the project to which the Utrok results contribute is, "to understand the regional variation of Marshall Islands archaeology and to provide a basic culture-history for the archipelago" (p. xi). Weisler suggests that a key factor conditioning regional variation here is the north-south rainfall gradient, with Utrok at the dry northern extreme. The other atolls investigated during the project are situated southward along this gradient. Another environmental constraint noted by Weisler is islet size. This factor determines the presence of a fresh water lens and clearly affects the potential for sustained occupation of a given islet. Another factor considered in Weisler's quest for understanding regional variation is sea level, notably the lower levels after c. 650 B.P. (citing Nunn 1998) which may have affected productivity of aroid pits putatively created before this time at Utrok.

The dual orientation, toward geographic factors as causally linked to cultural variations and toward culture history as an ultimate goal is indicated in Chapter 1 and further elaborated upon in the last chapter, Synthesis. Under the research design heading in Chapter 1, several "issues in atoll archaeology" are listed and briefly discussed: origins, chronology, sea level change and islet development, material culture, terrestrial production, and landscape change. These topical discussions provide interpretive contexts for the data to come, based on past and present research orientations in Pacific archaeology. Thus the research program was aimed at filling gaps in mostly predefined problem areas.

Chapter 2, The Archaeological Landscape, contains information about current land use patterns in the Marshalls generally and at Utrok Atoll in particular, as well as results of archaeological surveys within the atoll, at Pike, Allok, Bikrak, Nalap, Utrok, and Aon Islets. The photographs and other illustrations are effective in conveying some of the pertinent details observed during the surveys.

Chapter 3, Excavation of Habitation Sites, describes field methods and stratigraphic details about the excavation units by islet and site (five sites, seven islets). Plans showing the location of the excavations are included for each islet. The large islet of Utrok, with the most extensive habitation area in the atoll, was investigated intensively. At Site 1, a radiocarbon date...