10 November 2005

Scientists will use old coral to pinpoint exactly when a remote group of Pacific Islands was settled.

UQ archaeologist Dr Marshall Weisler is teaming up with French and Japanese researchers to learn more about colonisation and religious monuments of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia.

The Tuamotus, east of Tahiti, consist of 75 small atolls scattered across 1400 kilometres of eastern Pacific Ocean.

They are thought to have been inhabited since the 1400s by Polynesians who would collect and display branch coral in elaborate temples.

By dating this coral, Dr Weisler said he wanted to show exactly when the islands were colonised, when the shrines were built and reveal more about Polynesian society.

He is planning an archaeological expedition to some of the islands in 2007 to test a new coral dating method which is more precise than previously used radiocarbon dating.

This process, called Uranium Series Dating which Dr Weisler helped pioneer for Pacific archaeology, analyses uranium decay in the corals to determine their ages.

It is accurate to within two or three years for objects up to 600 years old.

“We’re looking at when people first got there and how long it was before they developed the elaborate religious system that required these major architectural temples,” Dr Weisler said.

He said the islands were harsh environments, full of sandy soil with little fresh water and at risk of storm surges due to being only two metres above sea level.

“These are incredibly difficult places to live.”

He will team up with French Tuamotus Islands archaeologist Dr Jean-Michel Chazine and Japanese coral atoll expert Dr Hiroya Yamano.

His UQ team members Jian-Xin Zhao, Kenneth Collerson, Yue-Xing Feng and Ke-Fu Yu from the Radiogenic Isotope Laboratory and School of Physical Sciences will date the coral.

Dr Weisler said he would plan more for the expedition next year during his one-month fellowship at France’s most prestigious social science university — the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

Media: Dr Weisler (+61 7 3365 3038, email: m.weisler@uq.edu.au) or Miguel Holland at UQ Communications (+61 7 3365 2619, m.holland@uq.edu.au)