Mark Merlin on Historic Farming in Micronesia

PANTROPICA Virtual Seminar Series #1: The past, present & future ‘Pantropocene’: Pacific perspectives

Prof. Mark Merlin (U. Hawai’i) on The Anthropocene in Micronesia: Early Farmers and their Transported Landscapes


Abstract: Ancient peoples who settled on the sufficiently well-watered islands of Remote Oceania, starting more than 3,000 years ago, consciously brought their “portmanteau biota” of numerous domesticated plants and animals along with a variety of organisms introduced unwittingly. Generally, these human-introduced species included the important traditional plant food sources such as taros, yams, breadfruit, bananas and coconut. Archaeologists, culture historians, historical geographers and ethnobotanists would like to know the following: when were these domesticated species first introduced to diverse islands; what has been their relative significance to local subsistence strategies; what were their roles in the adaptation and social organization of the prehistoric settlers; and how did tropical cultivation of these species produce profound changes in the indigenous ecologies. Nevertheless, the first successful voyagers to reach Remote Ocean apparently established sustainable subsistence systems — at least until globalization began with the intrusion of Europeans and other peoples brought the commercial economic activities to the region. Up until now, only relatively minor attention has been directed toward those plants that were brought intentionally to Remote Oceania for non-subsistence purposes — for their social and ritual importance. This presentation focuses on the betel nut palm, as a “canoe plant” introduced to several tropical Pacific islands as part of the “transported landscape” of ancient colonizers of Southeast Asian-Near Oceania origin. Although this plant is essentially non-nutritive from a dietary perspective, in traditional areas of psychoactive use it has also been valued by Pacific Islanders for a variety of invigorating, spiritually imbued, medicinally valuable, and culturally significant purposes. On the other hand, in the past and the present, the cultivation of this “non-essential” species has long had anthropogenic impact on several remote high islands in Micronesia. Inter-disciplinary perspectives enhance our understanding of how stimulant plants and their widespread, often intensive use have been part of the long lasting environmental impact of humans far and wide throughout the world.


Mark Merlin is an ethnobotanist at the U Hawai’i, Mānoa who explores the cultural histories of human-plant interactions, particularly pan-global, traditional uses of psychoactive species. He is passionate about fostering environmental education and preservation of traditional ecological and ethnobotanical knowledge. You can find out more about Mark and his research at