Looking from the outside, one of the most underrated areas of archaeological research at the moment is the Archaeology of the Pacific. It’s possible to make exciting discoveries anywhere in the world. In Polynesia though, it’s hard not to. The reason is that Polynesian archaeology has an odd contradiction. There’s been some excellent research done in the Pacific, yet it’s likely to be wrong. The problem is in the dating.
Take Easter Island. The big story there is the ecological collapse of the island. We know there was an ecological collapse because settlers arrived AD 800, their settlement patterns changed around AD 1200 and when they were discovered by Europeans there were relatively few people on the island. We know they were on the island in AD 800 because that’s been radiocarbon dated. If those dates were wrong, like if they were too old and settlers arrived later, then it’s not just a matter of tweaking dates on the timeline in textbooks. Suddenly there’s no native-caused population crash to explain.
Across the Pacific it turns out that many radiocarbon dates are too old. Testing the human factor: radiocarbon dating the first peoples of the South Pacific by Petchey et al. (2011) is a paper that helps explain why, but also shows which dates are accurate. First here’s a brief reminder on how radiocarbon dating works.