Researcher uses Hawaii to study human evolution, sustainability

Standford University professor Peter Vitousek speaks during his lecture at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center in Storrs, Connecticut on Friday, Oct. 16, 2015. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

Stanford University professor Peter Vitousek talked about the use of the Hawaiian Islands as model systems for the study of human evolution and sustainability Friday afternoon at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

Vitousek, fellow of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is interested in worldwide nutrient cycling of nitrogen and phosphorous. His research explores how nutrient cycles have been altered by human activity and the interaction between humans and nature in sustainable agriculture.

“It’s complex enough to be interesting, but simple enough to be attractive,” Vitousek said.

The Hawaiian Islands have been a crucial part of research into human development for a number of reasons, Vitousek said. The islands were colonized between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago by Polynesians who developed distinct cultures based on the properties of the islands.

Because the Hawaiian Islands are arranged from youngest to oldest, the archipelago has been a critical site for the study of how species have radiated and changed in new places, especially since the archipelago includes habitats unlike any other in the world.

By studying the soil of various regions in the archipelago, researchers, including Vitousek, are better able to understand how the human inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands used agriculture sustainably to feed entire populations.

“How we use soil to trace the history of people was interesting,” Zoe Esponda, a fifth- semester environmental science major, said. “A lot of people underestimate the importance of soil science.” 

The Polynesian people brought plants, animals and ideas with them when they colonized the islands, Vitousek said. They were not only great navigators in discovering and colonizing islands throughout the Pacific, but were also great farmers.

“They had to evolve ways to work with the land,” Vitousek said. “This was not backyard gardening. This was a production system.”

In Hawaii, those who settled on the youngest island depended on rainfall for dry-land agriculture, but on Kauai, the oldest island, people used irrigation for agriculture, Vitousek said.

Hawaii’s agriculture was much more labor intensive and included many more men than women workers and was more vulnerable to the environment because of lower productivity. Kauai’s agriculture was less labor intensive, the labor force was split between men and women and productivity was much higher.

“The mode of agricultural production shaped, in part, the development of society,” Vitousek said. 

Because Hawaii’s agriculture was more vulnerable to the environment, Vitousek said, it was more likely to be the source of conflict within the archipelago.

Conflict over food has been a pervading issue in the history of human populations, assistant professor of journalism Bob Wyss said, and will have implications for our future.

“The fear is that there’s just not going to be food around,” Wyss said. “There’s a real threat.”

Vitousek’s research seeks to understand how island people worked with their environment to sustain themselves without the use of fossil fuels or domesticated animals. Vitousek said that Hawaii now imports 85 percent of its food, but looking at how Hawaiians and other Polynesian islanders used land could help us build a sustainable future.

“It’s amazing that they were able to sustain themselves just using local agriculture,” fifth semester material science major Asa Army said.


Diler Haji is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.