Sustainability is often viewed through a futuristic prism, yet what we often miss is that ancient wisdom can hold important lessons. The struggle to be more sustainable is a relatively new phenomenon, but inspiration can be drawn from ancient farming and water management techniques. Innovation and technology can help us adapt these techniques to meet our present-day needs.

When people in Palau saw their actions affecting local fish populations, they altered their ways to protect the important food source, evidence indicates. It’s an example of what we now call sustainability.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study combines data from archaeology, history, and paleoecology to gain new insight into human-environmental interactions in the deep past.

Focused on tropical island archipelagoes including Palau in Micronesia, the evidence suggests that human-driven environmental change created feedback loops that prompted new approaches to resource management.

“Islanders apparently responded to those impacts by inventing new, sustainable practices,” says Scott Fitzpatrick, a professor of anthropology and the associate director for research at the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

The archaeological data indicate that the first Palauans settled in the interiors of its largest islands around 3,000 years ago, where they cleared forested areas and built earthen terraces to support agriculture. Then, in a move that has long stumped archaeologists, those communities gradually abandoned the interior regions in favor of the coastal margins where, beginning about 1,200 years ago, they built villages and established taro gardens buffered from the sea by mangrove forests.

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