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13 November 2005
Saipan may be Pacific's oldest archaeological site

Sediment cores taken from Saipan's Lake Susupe in 2002 have yielded a continual record of plant pollen and other materials for the past 8,000 years that could make the island one of the oldest archaeological site in the Pacific, according to the Historic Preservation Office. HPO director Epiphanio E. Cabrera said that scientists who have been working with the CNMI recently announced new evidence that could push the date for the earliest human settlement in Micronesia back to nearly 5,000 years ago.
     Cabrera said researchers J. Stephen Athens and Jerome Ward from the International Archaeological Research Institute Inc. noted a series of abrupt shifts in Saipan's ancient environment, some of which appeared to have been caused by humans. Charcoal particles and an abundance of grass pollen and pollens from betel nut palm and coconut trees that appeared around 6,860 BCE were analyzed. Cabrera said the discovery predates the earliest archaeological sites on Saipan by more than a thousand years. "This is some of the earliest evidence for human settlement ever found in Micronesia," he said.
     Dr. Richard Knecht, acting staff archaeologist, said the recent findings suggest that sites 5,000 years or older existed on Saipan. "The challenge now is to use what we know about ancient shorelines, which will likely reveal more early sites and possibly the first movement of early humans into the Pacific from Asia," Knecht said.
     Cabrera said that future studies and coring of lakes and sinkholes in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) are required to refine the "very promising, though still preliminary" findings. Other studies of ancient sites also revealed early occupation of the CNMI.
     The HPO director said a core from Lake Hagoi on Tinian revealed coconut pollen and charcoal particles dating back to 5,444 BCE There were also similar finds at Tipalao Marsh in Guam and a sinkhole in the Kagman Peninsula on Saipan's east side also shows major changes in vegetation by about 6,520 BCE. "It probably took years for humans to alter the environment to the point where it leaves a signature in the sediment cores. Therefore, the actual dates of initial human settlement could be decades or centuries before those taken from the cores," he said.
     The earliest sites in the CNMI are Saipan's Unai Achugao site from 1,800 B.C. and Tinian's Unai Chulu site dating to 1,500 B.C. Cabrera said HPO's search to find the earliest site in the CNMI will continue as long as funding is available. "It seems safe to assume that our ancestors were here on these islands 5,000 years ago," Cabrera said.

Source: Saipan Tribune (10 November 2005)

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