SFU Archaeologists Reveal History, Heritage and Knowledge of Island Communities

December 17, 2021

Zooarchaeologist and SFU professor, Christina Giovas, travels overseas to better understand long-term processes of environmental change and inform conservation efforts.

What started as an admiration for the natural world and a fascination with biology and ecology led Giovas to decades of international archaeological field work.

Giovas’ work centers around issues of human and environmental impacts and often looks at long-term socioecological changes through time. Her focuses vary from sustainable fishing practices and species introductions to issues of colonization, but they all have one thing in common – islands.

“I’ll ask questions like when did people first get to the island? What happened when they got there? How did they adapt to these new places, landscapes, and resource structures?” says Giovas.

In studies of colonization, islands allow us to look at what happened when people reached new continents in the recent past and can be telling of what happened in the more distant past.

“It's a really interesting microcosm for how people may have behaved when they reached new continents. Islands can provide a model system for how we understand those sorts of colonization and adaptation processes,” says Giovas.

Today, many of her projects are centered in the Caribbean where she looks to past landscape and biodiversity change to inform current issues the area faces.

When looking at species conservation and changes in resources, island based human-environment interactions give good insights. “It’s not unusual to find cases of overfishing in prehistory on these small resource-limited Islands,” says Giovas.

Instead, when exploring millennium old fishing practices in Carriacou, Giovas and her team found no indication of over-exploitation. “It was the opposite. People had been exploiting fish and exploring reefs for almost 1,000 years with no indicator of overfishing,” says Giovas.  “It suggests we have both sustainable and unsustainable practices coexisting.”

Studies of this nature can be useful in informing present day conservation efforts. “When restoration targets for species are based off data from only 30 or 50 years ago, they are not genuine,” says Giovas. “When you look back centuries or a millennium, we see people have been impacting the environment and biodiversity for a very long time. I’m hoping we can help to better inform restoration targets.” In the Summer of 2022, Giovas will lead an SFU environmental archaeology field school on the island of Curaçao to investigate 4,000 years of biodiversity change and connect with local stakeholders to advance local conservation efforts.

SFU archaeologist David Burley shares Giovas’ interest in island field work. Burley has worked for over 30 years in the South Pacific in the Republic of Fiji and Kingdom of Tonga, helping its citizens, visitors and his students better understand the heritage of these areas.

Throughout this time, Burley’s research has taken many foci. Like Giovas he is concerned with when, how and from where these island groups came to be settled, what impacts these early colonists had on their environment, how economic and cultural systems have adapted to different ecosystems and challenges and, ultimately, if there are lessons from the past to inform the present where global warming is front and centre with rising sea levels.

His work highlights not only the role archaeology plays in understanding the past but speaks strongly to the importance of sharing this information with the communities it belongs to. This need is magnified in studies of islands due to the many obstacles in collaboration and knowledge sharing caused by inherent geographic isolation. This has been a pillar of Burley’s work for decades. He has worked with the Royal Family of Tonga and the National Trust of Fiji and with educators and education ministries to ensure that his discoveries or findings get to those who will most benefit.

With decades of archaeological materials, Burley has built and curated local museum exhibits, published updates and popular articles in local news outlets, presented to community members and held village information sessions following traditional protocols. These acts provide a deeper understanding of an area’s heritage but also help generate income and create employment opportunities for descendant communities.

David Burley with HRM Taufa'ahau Tupou VI at the 2001 opening of the exhibit "The First Tongans" at the Tongan Museum, Nuku'alofa, Tongatapu.

In Burley’s words “Tongan and Fijians have long and storied pasts. To enrich the earliest chapters of their history through archaeology, and to engage and inform them in the process, has been one of the truly satisfying aspects of my research career.”

Over this time, Burley’s commitment to the communities he works with and concern for knowledge surrounding Tongan and Fijian culture, has enabled him to launch a successful field school where his students and local community members benefit.

Burley’s field schools in the South Pacific exposed over 140 undergraduate students to international experiential learning opportunities and encouraged collaborations between SFU and multiple institutions overseas. Burley’s students in turn have been invited to speak to high school students in Fiji, sharing their own experiences, and promoting the importance of post-secondary education. In one case, they went on to raise money on their return to Canada to build a computing lab in a remote primary school in the highlands of Viti Levu.

Over the past 50 years SFU Archaeology faculty have conducted research in over 43 countries on six continents. The work of Giovas and Burley demonstrates the far reach and global impacts of the Department.