OCEANIA ETHNOLOGY

MICRONESIA

Micronesia as an area is for the most part a featureless expanse of ocean peppered with small coral islands and islets. It extends from the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) which straddles the equator, north and west to the Marshall, Caroline and Federated States of Micronesia. This equatorial area is a region of steady wind, from which the low islands, particularly in the eastern area, failed to attract much rain, though the high islands, Kosrae, Yap, Pohnpei and Guam, have abundant and luxuriant verdure.

           

139 above is an adze constructed from a turtle bone.
 140 is a Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) spear with rows of shark's teeth.
141 is a carved wood mask from the Caroline Islands.
142 is a wooden box from Ocean Island (Banaba)

These scattered atolls, provide a uniform and circumscribed environment for their isolated communities. Nevertheless, each islet, although but a strand and loosely heaped coral fragment, has its contrast. Its outer margin has the fresh tang of the wind and the steady thunder of rollers dashing a lively, spurting barrage of spray along the reef. Almost immediately, the blinding glare of the reef gives place to the cool and grateful shade of coconut groves, extending across the half-mile or less to the sometimes placid, but often lively, dancing waters of the lagoon.

Slender resources face the Micronesian. The inhospitable sand will grow few plants, and even the coconut bears relatively few small nuts. Nevertheless, the coconut suffices; apart from nut, it supplies through a cut flower-stalk a steady drip of nutritious sap; its leaves provide plaiting material; the husk fibre serves for cordage and textile, and from spent trees the meagre timber supply is secured.

The pandanus is the second tree - its fruit provides a not unpalatable food, its leaves an admirable fibre, and its branches small timber for canoe outriggers and other light woodwork. The larger islands may even have a few breadfruit, while drenches dug in depression in the sand are moist enough to grow taro and sweet potato. Animals are quite scarce, however there may be a few chickens and perhaps a pig or two.

Although the Micronesian's land supplies are very limited, he finds the sea a generous provider. Squid, crabs and shellfish haunt the innumerable cracks and crannies of the reef, and fish abound both in the sheltered waters of the lagoon and beyond. Fishing is the chief activity of the atoll dwellers, and lines, nets, sinkers and hooks are inevitably prominent in any display of Micronesian arts and crafts.

Houses in Micronesia were of the usual wood-and-thatch construction with the roofs being very high and steep, reaching close to the ground. Not infrequently stone house-platforms three feet high were constructed and thick-walls enclosures made of large basaltic prisms are now buried in the jungle on Yap Island. Platforms and walls also occur at Ponape and at Guam there are pillar-like footings capped by large mushroom-head stones.

Implements, as well as fish hooks are derived from sea products in Micronesia. Slender adzes are contrived by grinding down large specimens of the auger shell, while larger adzes are made from the thick shell of the giant clam. Hoes and scrapers are often made of turtle bone. Everyone seems to wear a necklace: a string of shells, of teeth, or of discs cut from larger shells.

Among the Micronesians, the Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) seems to have been the most warlike; at least they have the nastiest weapons - long, lacerating spears and swords, set with rows of shark's teeth which must have torn the combatants cruelly, except for those who wore a full suit of thick, closely plaited sinnet armour, which is peculiar to these islands. In single combat, each armour-clad warrior was supported by an attendance, whose duty it was to ward off the opponent's blows.

Taken altogether, the Micronesian culture could not be described as rich, and this no doubt is due to the restricted resources of the whole area. Enterprise and ability are evident in the ingenuity and versatility which wrung every possible use out of the limited materials; but there seems to have been less of elaborate feast and organized ceremonial than in Polynesia, certainly a less developed art, and, except for the forgotten stone structures on Yap, Pohnpei and Guam less of temple or marae-building.

One might have expected to find in Micronesia some of the ideas or philosophy of nearby Asia in particular Malaysia or China. This is not evident however and maybe that the area is too scattered, too diffuse and sieve-like to have retained such influences.   

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Jane Resture
 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 1st December 2008)