Forget about Survivor - Micronesians are the real island adventurers
Over the past few weeks I've been doing a little bit of work with the Auckland Museum's collection of artefacts from Micronesia. It's been fascinating to look at taonga like sharks' teeth spears, hair belts, and shell adze axes, and read about the people that made them.
There's a major exhibition on Charles Darwin underway at the museum right now: it includes everything from live green frogs to excerpts from Marx's correspondence, and is intended to clarify the origins and evolution of the theory of evolution. I don't agree with everything in the exhibition, which was curated by American paleontologist Niles Eldredge, but I think it's a fine initiative, at a time when the religious right is baying about stupid ideas like intelligent design and creationism.
Darwin's ideas have suffered misuse, as well as rejection. Earlier this year the museum's Vaka Moana exhibition was held to celebrate the nautical achievements of Pacific peoples. The massive and impressive book which accompanied the exhibition included a fascinating chapter by Kerry Howe on pseudo-scientific European explanations for the origins of Pacific peoples and their cultures. Howe showed how many European visitors to the Pacific in the later nineteenth century believed that the world was composed of ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ races and cultures, and how as they travelled across the vast Pacific ocean these visitors tried to rank the various peoples they encountered according to their prejudices, which had in many cases been reinforced by a misreading of Darwin.
All too often, the peoples of the Pacific were judged inferior to the more ‘evolved’ peoples of Europe. Such judgments helped to legitimise the attempts of missionaries and colonists to wipe out or dilute indigenous cultures and replace them with ‘superior’ European models. Darwin himself always insisted that his theory of evolution did not imply that any species was superior to another, only different. He also denied that his theory could be applied to the study of the different human societies and cultures. Even today, though, he is often misinterpreted. It is still important, then, to dispel the myth that the peoples of places like Micronesia had ‘primitive’ and ‘inferior’ cultures before they made contact with Europeans.
A couple of years ago a series of the popular reality TV show Survivor was set in a remote corner of Micronesia. The contestants in the series, who all came from the faraway United States, were left on a small island in the nation of Palau. There they had to face challenges like feeding themselves, building shelters against the elements, and avoiding dangerous creatures like sharks and snakes.
Survivor: Palau is just a recent instalment in a tradition of island adventure stories that have been popular in the West for hundreds of years. These stories, which include Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the nineteenth century children’s story Swiss Family Robinson and, more recently, Tom Hanks’ hit movie Cast Away, involve Westerners being washed ashore on remote and often inhospitable tropical islands, where they have to show courage and ingenuity to survive. Usually, the island adventure story only lasts a few weeks or months, until rescuers arrive to bring the heroic survivor or survivors back to civilization, with all its comforts. The contestants in Survivor: Palau spent only a few weeks on their island, before being picked up and returned to their old lives.
Yet there is an older story of adaption, endurance, and survival which is set in Palau, as well as the rest of Micronesia. This story began when peoples from some of westernmost islands of the Pacific moved eastwards and began to settle the thousands of small and often inhospitable islands scattered across the vast stretch of ocean between Hawaii, in the northeast, and the Philippines, in the southwest. Despite the small size, relatively limited resources, and sometimes harsh environment of their island homes, the peoples of Micronesia have not only survived, but prospered – not for a few weeks, like the contestants on Survivor: Palau, but for millennia.
Micronesia was given its name by the French sailor Jules Dumont D’Urville, who was taken aback by the small size of most of its islands. The largest piece of land in all of Micronesia is Guam, which covers only 570 square kilometres – that’s about the size of Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Today Micronesia is divided into eight nations or territories, most of which are themselves composed of many small islands. The Federated States of Micronesia, for example, is an independent nation made up of six hundred and seven islands totalling just seven hundred and two square kilometers – that’s an area a little larger than the surface of Lake Taupo.
The Auckland Museum’s largest collection of Micronesian artefacts comes from Kiribati. Most of the museum’s Kiribati artefacts come as a result of its relationship with Harry and Honor Maude, who worked as civil servants and administrators on the Gilbert Islands, as Kiribati was then called, from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. The Maudes seem to have begun their careers as paternalistic Poms determined to bring civilisation to a far corner of the Empire, but they soon developed a passion for the passion and history of Kiribati, and began to collect artefacts and stories. The Maudes would often use their leave from Kiribati to visit New Zealand, where they would continue their research into the Pacific at institutions like the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
After leaving the colonial service, Harry Maude became an academic ethnologist in Australia. He and Honor cemented their association with Auckland's museum by giving it a part of their collection of Kiribati artefacts. The range of the Maude collection means that the museum has been able to devote a section of its Pacific Lifeways gallery solely to Kiribati. The scores of artefacts displayed in this section cover a wide spectrum of life on the islands, from fishing to sport to dancing to war.
In many ways Kiribati exemplifies what is most distinctive about Micronesia as a whole. Its thirty-three islands, most of which are coral atolls, straddle the equator near the western edge of Micronesia, covering a land area of seven hundred square kilometres and supporting a population of about 100,000. Kiribati is one of the more remote parts of Micronesia – its distance from popular shipping lanes and its lack of navigable harbours meant that it avoided colonisation until the 1890s, when the British established the administration that would employ Henry and Honor Maude. Kiribati’s atolls are barren, even by the standards of Micronesia. The soil is thin and poor, and the only plants that flourish are the coconut and pandanus palms. Kiribati culture is a study in the way that a hardy and ingenious human population can survive and prosper in an extreme and remote environment.
Because of the small size and poor soil of their islands, the people of Kiribati have always seen the sea as an essential resource. A typical inhabitant of Kiribati would know the names of eighty different species of fish, as well as numerous species of shellfish.
Kiribati artefacts are remarkable not only for what they are, but for what they were made from. Human hair, for example, was used to make some of the belts and necklaces that are on display in the Pacific Lifeways gallery. In Kiribati, hair was an important natural resource: women would often grow it very long, and then cut it off and place it in a hair bank, from which it could be collected by those making items that incorporated hair.
The Kiribati section of the Pacific Lifeways gallery includes dancers’ belts that were made from hair. The dance and music of Kiribati have impressed many observers. Robert Louis Stevenson, for instance, wrote that ‘it thrills, rouses, subjugates; it is the essence of all art, an unexplored imminent significance’. Male dancers would wear te nuota, a belt made from female hair especially cut for the purpose. Ideally the belt would be made from the hair of the dancer’s wife, but if this was not possible it could be cut from other female members of their family. The hair was then plaited into lengths long enough to go around the man’s waist, be tied. Some of the hair was deliberately left hanging from the belt.
The skirts of female dancers were also made with considerable ingenuity. The most common dancing skirt was made from coconut palm fronds which had been been bleached in the sun, softened by beating, and dyed black. The woman’s dancing belt, which was called te katau, was made from coconut fronds which had gone black after falling into the sea and lying there for a long time. After being pulled out of the water they were cut into very fine circles by men.
Material harvested from the sea could sometimes be used for more aggressive purposes. War was an occasional part of Kiribati life – islands raided each other, and sometimes combined to raid the Polynesian islands of Tuvalu to the south. The museum holds two thrusting weapons used in this sort of fighting – one is in the Spears section of the Pacific Masterpieces gallery, and the other can found in the Kiribati section of Pacific Lifeways. Both are very long, feature dozens of sharks’ teeth, and were intended to be sharp enough to pierce the coconut armour which warriors of Kiribati wore. The most dramatic moment in Survivior: Palau came when the eventual winner of the series killed and gutted a shark to feed the hungry members of his 'tribe'. This was presented as an event of exceptional drama, but it was a part of everyday life for the people of Kiribati. Often they'd shake a 'shark rattle' made of several seashells under the water to attract the creatures, which they had to dispatch by hand, with knives or spears.
In Kiribati and elsewhere, Micronesians used the limited resources around them so well that they were able to not only survive but prosper for thousands of years in their island homes. Micronesian culture and the artefacts it produced testify to the endurance and ingenuity of these island adventurers.