Scientists study isolated islands to test limits of human existence

Monday, February 21, 2011

WASHINGTON - Scientists are studying an isolated segment of islands in the Pacific Ring of Fire to test the limits upto which humans can survive in extreme conditions.

The Kuril Islands are an 810-mile archipelago that stretches from Japan to Russia and were formed by a collision of tectonic plates. It has been learned that thousands of people lived there on and off as far back as at least 6000 B.C., persevering despite natural disasters.

“We want to identify the limits of adaptability, or how much resilience people have. We’re looking at the islands as a yardstick of humans’ capacity to colonize and sustain themselves,” said Ben Fitzhugh, of the University of Washington.

The findings have implications for how we rebound from contemporary catastrophes, such as the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, hurricanes Katrina and Rita and last year’s earthquake in Haiti.

Fitzhugh is leading an international team of anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists and earth and atmospheric scientists in studying the history of human settlement on the Kuril Islands.

The scientists are studying islands in the central portion of the Kurils, from Urup Island in the south to Onekotan Island in the north-about 75 percent of the island chain.

During three expeditions, they’ve found small pit houses, pottery, stone tools, barbed harpoon heads and other remnants of the islanders’ fishing and foraging lifestyle.

Fitzhugh finds evidence that following volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, people left the settlements but eventually returned. Fitzhugh and his research team have found that mobility, social networks and knowledge of the local environment helped indigenous people survive.

“Having relatives and friends on other Kurils meant that, when something disastrous happened locally, people could temporarily move in with relatives on nearby islands,” he said.

Fitzhugh and his collaborators suspect that indigenous Kurilians instead used bird behavior, water currents and water temperature to navigate.

Fitzhugh said that the Kurils’ population decline has less to do with environmental challenges and more to do with changes in social and political influences, such as skirmishes between Russia and Japan over control of the Kurils.

He added that as a global society in a time of environmental changes, we have to protect abilities of small and vulnerable populations to sustain themselves.

“This is not something that will naturally rise to the top of priorities of large political systems without concerted effort,” said Fitzhugh.

The findings were discussed at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Washington. (ANI)

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