Underwater, the southern Line Islands may be relatively untouched, but above water they retain a footprint of human settlement and exploitation.
Despite being little more than specks in the vastness of the sea, these islands belonged to Polynesia. The legendary seafarers of the Pacific used the constellations of the heavens to navigate among a constellation of islands.
Graves and marae—Polynesian ceremonial sites—have been found on some of the 11 Line Islands, although little is known about how and when the islands were occupied.
Europeans came in the 1800s. By the end of that century, some of the islands had upwards of a hundred workers digging guano, decomposed droppings from seabirds, bats, and seals—a valuable fertilizer. On Malden Island, laborers used sails to propel guano-filled railcars along tram tracks from the mines to a warehouse near the shore.
The Guano Islands Act passed in 1856 entitled citizens of the United States to take possession of any island that contained guano deposits, so long as it was not occupied or under the jurisdiction of another government. All of the Line Islands, then uninhabited, were claimed under this law, and most were eventually mined.
Some of the Line Islands were also planted with coconut palms to produce copra, the dried nut meat utilized for its oil.
A more extreme use occurred in 1957, when the United Kingdom exploded three hydrogen bombs in the atmosphere above Malden Island. Thirty-one years later, elevated levels of radioactive cesium were still being recorded in the lagoon of Caroline Island, one of the southern Line Islands more than 500 miles away. (Not to be confused with the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, thousands of miles to the west.)
Once their guano deposits were exhausted, the islands were typically abandoned. Only three of the Line Islands—Kingman Reef, Jarvis Island, and Palmyra Atoll, all in the northern group—remain United States possessions; since 1983 the rest have belonged to Kiribati, a nation of 33 islands spread over 1,351,000 square miles (3.5 million square kilometers). (Kiribati, pronounced KEE-ree-bas, is a derivation of “Gilberts”—the former European name for the main island group, the Gilbert Islands.)