Let me state for the record: as much as I may have wanted to, I have never set foot in the Galápagos. When I think—or more aptly put, dream—about the archipelago, however, I imagine a variety of iconic images: beautiful blue ocean waters, volcanic islands, giant tortoises, buccaneers, Darwin, finches, the Beagle, whalers, Moby Dick; the list goes on. These are the essential components of our humanity-wide love affair with these islands, their history and especially their native wildlife. The Galápagos are associated in my mind (and I suspect in the minds of others) with a rich and diverse ecosystem of flora and fauna, which has been intimately tied to human experiences for over 400 years, especially in the biological, ecological and evolutionary sciences. Something that does not immediately come to mind when considering the Galápagos, however, is its archaeology. The volume under review, by Peter Stahl, Fernando Astudillo, Ross Jamieson, Diego Quiroga and Florencio Delgado, will change that. This book significantly alters our understanding of human experiences in the Galápagos, and means that archaeology can now be added to Galápagos renown.
Historical ecology and archaeology in the Galápagos Islands: a legacy of human occupation (and associated open-access repository: https://exhibits.library.uvic.ca/spotlight/galapagos) is a substantial and important contribution to the archaeological discipline. Over six chapters, with detailed complementary notes and references, the authors weave an extraordinary account of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Hacienda El Progreso located on San Cristóbal Island, and its founder Manuel Julián Cobos. The history and archaeology of Cobos and his sugar plantation are remarkable. Cobos was a technologically and business savvy entrepreneur who was ahead of his time in some respects, and yet antiquated in others (especially his ruthless punishments). He was eventually murdered by his own workers during a revolt in 1904. Stahl and his co-authors contextualise the human experiences of this intriguing episode within the broader historical, ecological and archaeological record of San Cristóbal and the Galápagos, making this an excellent volume.
Situating their archaeological investigations and research at this historic sugar plantation within a framework of historical ecology, the authors discuss past and present human experiences in the Galápagos and speculate on the future of inhabitants of the islands. Delicately intertwining issues such as ecological diversity, landscape manipulation, agriculture, ecotourism, Western expansion, globalisation, trade and the legacy of Cobos's hacienda in the community today, the volume succeeds in ‘doing’ historical ecology at its finest. Throughout the book, there is a palpable sense of urgency to convey the message that the history and archaeology of this singular sugar plantation on San Cristóbal are closely tied to the future of human occupation and exploitation of the Galápagos as a whole; this is particularly apposite when considering global climate change, the proliferation of non-native invasive species, water access, fishing rights, and socioeconomic issues throughout the archipelago. This book provides a timely perspective for both modern and legacy issues that may seem unique to the Galápagos, but are analogous to communities worldwide.
There are several sections in this volume that deserve special mention. For those enthralled by the historiography of the Galápagos, Stahl et al. provide one of the most detailed and thorough reviews of the ‘Colonial’ era of initial human colonisation of the archipelago (Chapter 2). Their use of Spanish-language documents ensures that this is a holistic history, which builds on previous accounts of human experiences in the archipelago by adding a welcome new perspective on this era. This fuller engagement with the historical record provides a new baseline for understanding the Galápagos, especially in terms of the possible identification of non-native species introduced earlier than previously recognised—details that have significant implications for understanding anthropogenic impact on the archipelago today.
In Chapter 4, the authors present a detailed synthesis of their archaeological investigations. Of particular note for those studying Galápagos tortoises is the absence of any tortoise bones within hacienda contexts, despite a sample of over 23 000 zooarchaeological specimens. This is a significant revelation as historical tortoise-exploitation records on San Cristóbal are unclear; it may suggest local extirpation of tortoise populations by whalers and other groups prior to Cobos's arrival or after the occupation of the hacienda. This chapter also provides a novel macrobotanical and phytolith record for the Galápagos that is highly significant. While several palaeoenvironmental records exist from the archipelago, Stahl et al. provide palaeoenvironmental data that are directly associated with human activities, and, in so doing, clearly expose the consequences of long-term anthropogenic landscape manipulation and farming.
The authors should be commended for their rigorous and contextualised approach to documenting and examining the historical artefacts recovered from the hacienda excavations. They present detailed artefact data in a manner that tells the story of these items within individual experiences, and reveal the human agency that resulted in items being deposited at this remote location. As the authors write:
Cobos's commitment to bringing all these products to his Galápagos highland operation, however, demonstrates an amazing commitment to the world of consumer goods in such a remote location, and it offers a strong contrast to our image of Cobos as brutal master over a village of workers living in crushing poverty with few material comforts. (p. 127)
This book is a captivating and necessary read for those interested in the archaeology and historical ecology of the Galápagos, and the history of the archipelago more broadly.