Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Antarctica: Human–Environment Interaction

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE In May 2000, the Smithsonian Institution honored Mau Piailug for preserving traditional navigation skills. Mau was born in Micronesia. When he was four years old, he began to sail with his grandfather, who taught the boy how to navigate without using instruments. Those methods of navigation were similar to those used by ancient Polynesians. In 1976, Mau was the navigator during an experimental voyage in which a group used a Polynesian-style canoe to travel from Hawaii to Tahiti and back. Since then, Mau has taught many people in the Pacific Islands how to navigate using traditional skills. In doing so, he passed on important knowledge of how ancient people adapted to their environment.

Traveling the Pacific

In ancient times, people around the world found ways to travel great distances in spite of geographic challenges. For example, the people of Arabia discovered that the camel was the perfect pack animal to take across the desert. Similarly, the people who settled the islands of the Pacific developed ways to travel that vast and dangerous ocean.


Most scholars believe that the people who settled the Pacific Islands came from Southeast Asia. They first used land bridges and small rafts and canoes to reach the islands closest to the mainland. In time, they ventured farther out into the Pacific, which required more sophisticated navigation methods.

Pacific Islanders not only relied on stars for navigation, but they also used charts made of sticks and shells. The sticks showed the patterns of waves commonly found in a region. The shells gave the positions of islands. Pacific Islanders closely guarded the secret of how to use these charts until the late 1800s. About that time, they began to use European methods of navigation.


To sail the vast ocean, Pacific Islanders developed huge voyaging canoes with double hulls, shown above. Having two hulls made the craft stable and gave it the ability to carry lots of weight. The canoes also had sails to take advantage of the winds. Cabins were sometimes built on the platform atop the hulls to shelter the voyagers and their supplies. Those supplies usually included plants that the travelers hoped to grow in their new homeland.

The large voyaging canoes were awkward to use in the lagoons of the islands where Pacific Islanders settled. In those places, they used the outrigger canoe. An outrigger canoe has a frame, with an attached float, extending from one side. The float helps balance the canoe.

Invasion of the Rabbits

Just as the people who settled the Pacific Islands carried familiar plants with them, so did the Europeans who colonized Australia. They also brought European animals, such as the rabbit. The impact was disastrous. Although the rabbit is a small, timid animal, it proved to be a force strong enough to nearly ruin the Australian landscape.


In Europe, many people raise or hunt rabbits for food. In 1859, Thomas Austin released 24 rabbits into Australia so he could hunt them. It was like infecting the continent with a cancer; the rabbit population grew faster than anyone could control it. A single pair of rabbits can have up to 184 descendants in 18 months. Plus, rabbits have few natural enemies—such as foxes—among Australia's wildlife. By 1900, Australia had more than a billion rabbits.

Australia's arid climate produces sparse vegetation. Rabbits graze close to the ground, so they kill or weaken the plants that do grow. Rabbits wiped out native plants and destroyed crops. They ruined pastures, reducing the land's ability to feed herds of sheep. Areas stripped of vegetation suffered erosion. And some of Australia's native animals became endangered because of competition for food.


Australians have made efforts to control the number of rabbits. They imported foxes to prey on rabbits, but the growing fox population endangered Australian wildlife just as rabbits had. In the early 1900s, the government built a 2,000-mile fence to keep rabbits from spreading to the southwest. This fence succeeded only temporarily before rabbits broke through to the new region.

In the 1950s, the government infected wild rabbits with a disease called myxomatosis. More than 90 percent of the total rabbit population died. As rabbit numbers decreased, Australian ranches could support nearly twice as many sheep. But rabbits became immune to the disease, and their numbers boomed again—to 300 million by the 1990s.

Now Australians are trying a combination of methods to reduce rabbit numbers: using poison, introducing new diseases, erecting fences, and destroying the warrens and burrows where rabbits live. No one knows if this new program will provide a permanent solution.

Nuclear Testing

Australia is not the only land in this region to be scarred by the consequences of human action. Beginning in the 1940s, the United States and the Soviet Union waged an arms race in which they competed to develop more powerful nuclear weapons. As part of its weapons development program, the United States wanted to test nuclear bombs without endangering American citizens. In the 1940s and 1950s, the United States conducted 66 tests in the Pacific.


In the Marshall Islands of the central Pacific lies Bikini Atoll. An atoll is a ringlike coral island or string of small islands surrounding a lagoon. Bikini Atoll was the site of U.S. atomicweapons tests. (Similar tests were also held on Enewetak Atoll.) The U.S. government chose Bikini for testing because it lay far away from regular shipping and air travel routes. In 1946, the government moved the 167 Bikini Islanders to another atoll and conducted two atomic-weapons tests.

From 1951 to 1958, the U.S. government held about 60 more tests there. The most dramatic of these was the explosion of a hydrogen bomb that was code-named Bravo. That blast vaporized several islands of the Bikini Atoll and contaminated the entire area with high levels of radiation. Many islanders were injured or became ill.


In the meantime, the Bikini Islanders remained exiled from their homeland. The first atoll to which they were moved proved to be unable to support inhabitants, so in 1948, they were moved to the island of Kili. But they soon grew unhappy because conditions there made it impossible to grow enough food or to engage in fishing.

In the late 1960s, the United States government declared Bikini Atoll safe for humans, and some islanders returned home. Then, in 1978, doctors discovered dangerous levels of radiation in the islanders' bodies.

The affected islanders had to leave again. A cleanup began in 1988, but no one knows when Bikini Atoll will again be suitable for human life. In Chapter 31, you will read more about the history and culture of Oceania, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.