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Implications of anomalous relative sea-level rise for the peopling of Remote Oceania

Sefton, JP; Kemp, AC; Engelhart, SE; Ellison, JC; Karegar, MA; Charley, B; McCoy, MD

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JP Sefton

AC Kemp

JC Ellison

MA Karegar

B Charley

MD McCoy


Beginning ~3,500 to 3,300 y B.P., humans voyaged into Remote Oceania. Radiocarbon-dated archaeological evidence coupled with cultural, linguistic, and genetic traits indicates two primary migration routes: a Southern Hemisphere and a Northern Hemisphere route. These routes are separated by low-lying, equatorial atolls that were settled during secondary migrations ~1,000 y later after their exposure by relative sea-level fall from a mid-Holocene highstand. High volcanic islands in the Federated States of Micronesia (Pohnpei and Kosrae) also lie between the migration routes and settlement is thought to have occurred during the secondary migrations despite having been above sea level during the initial settlement of Remote Oceania. We reconstruct relative sea level on Pohnpei and Kosrae using radiocarbon-dated mangrove sediment and show that, rather than falling, there was a ~4.3-m rise over the past ~5,700 y. This rise, likely driven by subsidence, implies that evidence for early settlement could lie undiscovered below present sea level. The potential for earlier settlement invites reinterpretation of migration pathways into Remote Oceania and monument building. The UNESCO World Heritage sites of Nan Madol (Pohnpei) and Leluh (Kosrae) were constructed when relative sea level was ~0.94 m (~770 to 750 y B.P.) and ~0.77 m (~640 to 560 y B.P.) lower than present, respectively. Therefore, it is unlikely that they were originally constructed as islets separated by canals filled with ocean water, which is their prevailing interpretation. Due to subsidence, we propose that these islands and monuments are more vulnerable to future relative sea-level rise than previously identified.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 31, 2022
Online Publication Date Dec 19, 2022
Publication Date Dec 27, 2022
Deposit Date Nov 7, 2022
Publicly Available Date Jun 19, 2023
Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Print ISSN 0027-8424
Electronic ISSN 1091-6490
Publisher National Academy of Sciences
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 119
Issue 52
Article Number e2210863119
Public URL


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