Monday, October 08, 2007

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.

8 Comments:

Blogger Richard Taylor said...

My grandfather, who was English*, was supervisor of works on Ocean Island from about the 1920s to 1939 when the British had to leave as the Japanese attacked. My mother boarded in Melbourne and went to Ocean Island (it is on the Equator) every summer and the holidays - she used to swim and have great time there. She told me of how the Islanders would dive into the sea where there were sharks and kill them with knives (much as you describe - they were almost fearless). This was indeed almost a daily action or event.

As a boy I recall the shark-tooth embedded spears my grandfather had. He had other things from Micronesia. I am not sure where they all are (when he lived in Devonport in the 50s they were mostly all in large "base" that was (I think) the base of a palm tree - they fascinated me and when I later went to the museum I recognised some. He had other things. I was always quite frightened of the shark-edged spears and didn't touch them...

The main reason the British(and Australian and NZ Govts) were there was to extract the fertiliser superphosphate (processed from bird droppings known in South America as "Guanaca" (something like that) - this superphposphate was sold to farmers etc and used as top dressing to keep NZ and other farms in other countries fertile. Meanwhile - my mother didn't really know (the fine details of) this - the British violated the contract* with the local people on the Island by not replacing each and every hole dug where there was a coconut tree with another - the place became greatly depleted and (added to the destruction caused by the Japanese - from whom some British and Kiribateans fled and some were caught and murdered - one must recall - and never forget - the absolute ruthlessness of the Japanese) but in one case they escaped by a long and heroic sea journey (there is book on it)):

I have pictures of the Island from before the war and also some books and probably some artifacts - certainly some beautiful shells. My parents and grandparents are dead - when they were on Ocean Island the British were relatively benign and my grandfather organised concerts and had film showings and a theatre.

But what you say about the courage and ingenuity of those people is very true.

The myths of race and cultural superiority we perpetuated (in many cases by a gradual increase in misinformation - deliberately perpetuated or by misunderstandings) - this is well described by Weinberger in an essay 'The Fallings' in his book "Karmic Traces") Darwin's theories were misconstrued and distorted by the Nazis (and others - even Marx took up certain of the prevailing racial misconceptions) and some relatively well meaning European philosophers added to the muddle.

The result of British, Australian and New Zealand exploitation caused Nauru and Ocean Island to be virtually uninhabited for some years.

* But they did pay out quite a lot of money if private individual's coconut trees was destroyed - my mother did this once as child (damaged a young tree) and was severely in trouble as her parents had to fork out. Contrast with actions of the Japanese - who simply took and or murdered.

However I am not excusing exploitation and British/Australian/NZ (or French of US) Imperialism.

My sisters (and my brother) may have more info and I will look in some old albums and cupboards for more information - there is actually a Kiribati society based in Australia.

12:25 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I recall now - Ocean Island is Banaba.

12:28 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff Richard - I had no idea of your connection with that part of the world. I'll have to pick your brains and perhaps get some copies of those photos for the museum, too. There was a short movie at the Doco festival about Banaba, but I missed it (typical).
(Maps)

9:18 am  
Anonymous Mike B said...

I saw that Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York; it was great - I really liked the focus on social context, didn't know much about the Darwins and Wedgwoods etc before that.

Elsewhere in that museum they have Margaret Mead's Pacific exhibit which was unintentionally funny/sad. They had a picture, for example, of an Aboriginal guy in traditional dress waiting for a Sydney train.

Have you read Stephen Jay Gould's essay on Marx and Darwin? http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1134/is_7_108/ai_55698600/pg_1

12:44 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

mike b

You were "talking" to Scott but I'll comment here also.

I was in NY in 1993 but I didn't go to the Natural Museum - I have a (very large - beautifully illustrated) book I have had since a teenager (in the 60s) about Darwin and evolution - he married into the Wedgewood family.

What I liked about Darwin was the way he kept of collating his insects,rocks,fossils, bones etc and sitting behind that big desk and being hypochondriac and procrastinating - I always wanted to sit in such a study and ruminate and dream of past exploits (done or not) - not to do anything - then be forced to publish would - I can see how irksome it would have been!! Wallace also developed and proved* the evolution thesis so they published together as agreed.
Or Wallace would have got all the credit - Huxley pushed Darwin.

Scott may have (read Gould's book) - I am aware of Gould - I had one book by him that - as it focused on baseball (as metaphor or model for some theory he had) I couldn't get into it - I think I sold it. (I sell books).

I may still have it but I have friend who has all of his book and those of Dawkins - I have one by Dawkins and a great book by Carl Sagan - "Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors"

I also have (I mean for sale in this case) a book about the Marshall Islands which I must read (time permitting)- it documents the US incursion there (which wasn't/isn't pleasant)(nor is that of the French who have a string of military bases from France right round the world and it includes Tahiti as everyone knows).

*Don't tell anyone but it is nonsense that evolution is thought of by some not fact - much the same as salt is provably NaCl so evolution is equally and incontrovertibly true. But don't try convincing a creationist or anyone who doesn't know much - q.v. religious crackpots such as Bush, Billy Graham and his friends or even (fanatical) Muslims (other religious) etc

9:25 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

The reason many people cant understand or they reject evolution in isn't only for religious reasons - to most people science is just not on the radar screen - and it is eaier to go for "mumbo jumbo" etc

But the time involved is vast and while people can understand that rugby is played with a ball - anything beyond that is difficult very very difficult.

It is also easier to believe what one's parents believe or as in the case of Yest to reject one's father's rigorous Atheism (a religion itself)and build one's own" religion' with the help (inter alia) of Vico and Balvatsky.

As a poet I scoop up some science, some Marxism (when it suits me) and Nietzscheanism etc, and leaven it with decent servings of mumbo and my own constantly changing moods and views which are probably more important to me than any idee fixee. Proof of evolution doesn't contradict the possiblity of some creator or some "force" or some mystery of consciousness - that existence is strange and mysterious also beyond a doubt.

As a noted writer said: the more scientists discover or prove - the stranger the universe gets.

9:41 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

maps

I'll try and get some stuff dug out when time and weather permit - I'll contact my sister to see if they have anything of interest.

My uncle (my mother's brother (dead now) - Frank Miller) stayed in England and flew for the RAF in the war* he was later an architect for the Australian Govt.

Later in life he got interested in Banaba etc and bought a book off me - I actually bought the book from another book dealer in Australia (this is common practice with book dealers BTW) and resold it to him at a sharp profit - business is business!!

But my cousins - none of whom I have met - in Australia - may know something also. My sisters know them a bit better - they have been to Australia - I never have.

Everyone seems to want to go to Bali and live in night clubs or go surfing or importing and selling drugs etc (while the majority of the indigenous people of the Pacific (including Indonesia) are living in very impoverished or dangerous
conditions) but the realities of these places in the Pacific they don't really want to know about.
I have some sympathies with the so called terrorists - at least I can understand their passions - if not totally support their methods.


* I believe it had a very deep affect on him - he told me once how terrible it was to go on missions (he said all of his mates were killed) and once to avoid or reduce possibility of death they flew straight from Africa to England and dropped their bombs - meant to be for France - into the Atlantic as leave was due!

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