top of page
  • Writer's pictureAdmin

Climate change spawned cannibalism

Palau during German colonization: painting by Rudolf Hellgrewe, from Das Buch von unseren Kolonien by Ottomar Beta (Leipzig, 1908)

By Raquel Bagnol

Long before climate change became the staple of global conferences, the pre-contact settlers of Pacific islands had lived through—and died from—the atrocious consequences of the extreme rise and fall of temperatures.

Climate change resulted in food scarcity that sparked conflicts among villages and led to the unthinkable: the rise of cannibalism.

The occurrence of climate change during the pre-contact period was examined by archaeologist Dr. Scott M. Fitzpatrick in his paper, "A Critique of the ‘A.D. 1300 Event’ with Particular Reference to Palau," which cited the work of Dr. Patrick D. Nunn, professor of Oceanic Geoscience at the University of the South Pacific in Suva.

In the A.D. 1300s, Palau’s early settlers lived a peaceful life. They relied on agricultural crops and marine resources for subsistence.

Then the Medieval Warm Period descended from c. 950 to c.1250. The climate turned warmer and the water tables fell. The climate change impacted the production of key crops.

The Warm Age was followed by the Little Ice Age (approximately A.D. 1300-1800) when temperatures dropped and sea levels receded.

The climate fluctuation, called the "A.D.1300 event," was marked by a rapid transition from a warmer to a cooler, stormier period when sea levels dropped 50-80 cm.

Climate change tipped the balance for the settlers, creating ripple effects and stirring their normal lifestyles. Prior to the Little Ice Age, the village settlers relied on coastal-plain food such as coconuts, taro and yams.

The sea level recession in reef areas caused a near depletion of marine resources like crab, octopus, turtle, shellfish and fish.

Food resources dropped 80 percent. The food shortage resulted in increased conflict, the rise of cannibalism, headhunting and forced migration. About 4,000 to 6,000 settlers packed their belongings and relocated.

Nunn cited some evidence of the conflicts among groups, including the construction of fortifications and expansion of defensive walls and relocation of the population to new areas. The intensified levels of warfare, he added, were gleaned from hints of injuries found in human remains, which showed evidence of trauma and cannibalism.

In his 2007 paper, Nunn noted that intertribal warfare and cannibalism became widespread throughout the Little Ice Age. "The rise of cannibalism at this time can be explained largely as an expression of conflict," Nunn said. Although some islands historically practiced cannibalism, it has rarely been documented archaeologically in the Pacific.”

Nunn noted that the depletion of food resources in many areas caused by climate cooling and sea-level fall was supported by considerable data, including detailed case studies from Fiji and Palau.

In an article titled "Last Millennium Climate Change in the Occupation and Abandonment," authors Geoffrey Clark and Christian Reepmeyer examined the link between the food crisis and the outbreak of conflict that pushed the settlers to move from the coastal parts of the big islands like Babeldaob to the Rock Islands.

Clark and Reepmeyer noted that several researchers debated over a theory that between the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age, there was a century or two of rapid cooling in the Pacific. “Climate fluctuations are viewed as a critical context of major cultural transformation implicated in the origins of agriculture, the growth and catastrophic collapse of complex societies, and are held responsible for profound shifts in subsistence, settlement and migration,” they wrote.

Clark and Reepmeyer said radiocarbon dates from village sites in the Rock Islands indicated that permanent settlements were established during the Medieval Warm Period, and abandoned during the Little Ice Age.

The first European contact with Palau was in A.D. 1783 when the East India Company packet Antelope was wrecked on the west barrier reef. The crew spent three months building a schooner.

The crew noticed that the Rock Islands in the vicinity of Ulong Island were uninhabited, except for one island close to Peleliu.


However, earlier records of Palauan traditions showed that there had been an extensive permanent settlement in the Rock Islands where archaeologists found evidence of 12 abandoned village sites. The village sites had stone structures on sand plains and adjacent steep hill slopes. Those structures usually represent houses, cooking and resting platforms. They also found defensive walls, causeways docks and wells.

In addition, large quantities of marine shellfish and finfish remained, indicating that the settlers relied heavily on marine resources.

Stone tools and pottery indicated that the villagers in the Rock Islands did not live in isolation, but were connected to other communities in other parts of Palau.

Well, the reemergence of cannibalism may be unthinkable, but the possibility of food shortage resulting from climate change is not impossible.

Raquel Bagnol is a freelance journalist. She is a former reporter of Palau Horizon and Marianas Variety. Send feedback to

Subscribe to

our digital

monthly edition


bottom of page