Fish and fishing on a Western Torres Strait Island, Northern Australia: Ethnographic and Archaeological Perspectives

Barbara Ghaleb

1. Introduction

The research discussed in this paper is part of a larger project concerned with the reconstruction of past settlement patterns on a tropical island in Australia, based upon a study of archaeological remains and relevant Northern ethnographic accounts. The archaeological material was excavated from coastal-midden deposits which consist primarily of animal remains. The aim of this research is to supplement a bioarchaeological analysis of animal remains with information from ethnographic descriptions, and to examine critically the extent to which either source can tell us about a past peoples' subsistence and settlement patterns.

The geographical context of the project is Torres Strait, a shallow island-studded channel only 150km wide, which separates the northwestern tip of continental Australia from the southern shores of Papua New Guinea. The Strait contains over 100 islands and islets of which only 17 are permanently inhabited today. They can be divided according to their location, physical make-up and relief into four groups: "an eastern group of high islands of basic volcanic rocks; a central group of low coralline limestone islands and reefs; a western group of high islands made up of acid volcanic rocks; and, in the northwest adjacent to the Papuan coast, two alluvial islands that rise no more than a few metres above sea level" (Harris 1979, 76-77). One island, Mabuiag, in the midwestern group is the focus of this study. It is a small triangular-shaped island of only 8 square kilometres which, with its surrounding offshore islands and islets, forms the northern tip of the midwestern group of islands.

A century ago an anthropological team from Cambridge, England, headed by a zoologist-turned-anthropologist, A.C. Haddon, visited Torres Strait, in particular Mabuiag and one of the eastern islands, Mer. The major objective of Haddon's research team was to record, by living among the Islanders, all remaining knowledge of their lifestyle prior to European infiltration, "not merely in order to give a picture of their former conditions of existence and their social and religious activities, but also to serve as a basis for an appreciation of the changes that have taken place" (Haddon 1935, XIV). Six volumes (averaging 400 pages each) record the information collected over two field sessions: Haddon's first visit in 1888, and the main expedition in 1898. These six reports contain information pertinent to the prehistory of Torres Strait as a whole, but in particular the past lifestyle on Mabuiag and Mer.

As outlined in the abstract, ethnographic descriptions of a people's "traditional" lifestyle, if taken at face value, may be significantly different from reconstructions based upon the analysis and interpretation of archaeological data. It is first necessary to establish the relevance of the ethnographic accounts to the archaeology, and then the reliability of the documentary sources. In this example, the Haddon Reports are highly relevant because they consist of ethnographic information from Islanders whose ancestors' activities gave rise to the archaeological remains under study. Secondly, critical consideration of the detail and comprehensiveness of the information recorded by Haddon and his colleagues inspires confidence in their reliability as questioners and observers.

Haddon's objective "to record the purely native conditions rather than to describe the present modified ones" (Haddon 1912, 5) was realised through discussions with the elderly men (and to a lesser extent women), who were still living in the island communities of Mabuiag and Mer during his 1888 and 1898 field seasons. The Islanders' knowledge of their genealogies stretched back five generations, to a time when the communities were virtually untouched by western influences (Haddon 1904, 122). More importantly, because the most dramatic changes in traditional life had started to occur only 30 years prior to Haddon's arrival, the senior informants were adolescents and young adults at the time of the first effective European contact. Although foreign ships are known to have sailed within Torres Strait as early as the beginning of the 17th century, it was not until the latter half of the 19th century that the Islanders' life began to change. This was mainly a result of the increasing presence of European entrepreneurs, who, by the 1860s, had begun to recruit South Sea and Torres Strait Islanders to exploit three of the Strait's marine resources: pearlshell (Pinctada sp.), turban shells (Trochus niloticus), and sea slugs or bêche de mer (Holothuria sp.). The 1870s saw the annexation of Torres Strait by the Queensland government and the introduction of Christianity, mainly by the London Missionary Society. Thus, because the people of Mabuiag had only been significantly affected by contact for 30 years prior to Haddon's first visit, it is not surprising that they retained much traditional knowledge. Haddon himself commented that "We were but just in time to record the memory of the vanished past" (Haddon 1904, vi).

By 1888, on Mabuiag, most of the younger mens' time was usurped by the commercial diving enterprises; wages led to the purchase of European goods, and the Islanders had been, in part at least, converted to a Christian world view. Yet, however much social, religious, and subsistence-related activities had changed, the Haddon Reports clearly show that the Islanders were still strongly influenced by their traditional beliefs and still practised many of their traditional activities. Even though Haddon felt that the most marked changes in Islander life had taken place in economic activities, rather than in social behaviour (e.g. kinship, inheritance, and marriage negotiations) (Haddon 1908, xix), he and his colleagues were still able to collect much detailed information on traditional subsistence strategies, including fishing. Before presenting both the archaeological and ethnographic data on fishing, it is important to note that Haddon's ethnographic objectives and methods differed substantially from the objectives of the archaeological work reported here, because they affect differentially the types of data collected. In particular, because Haddon obtained most of his information from the men, there is likely to be a strong male bias in the points of view of both the ethnographers and their informants.

An analysis of archaeological fish remains can generally provide information related to the following kinds of past human behaviours: use of the environment ("camping" locations and habitats exploited); food preferences (species diversity and quantities eaten), and preparation (butchery, possibly cooking); and procurement technology (how fish were obtained). A study of ethnographic accounts, which describe fishing practices, may well provide information relevant to the kinds of information mentioned above, in addition to information that may or may not have archaeological correlates (e.g. the importance of fishing in daily life or ritualistic practices, sexual division of labour, art, folklore, or organic components of technology). With this in mind, let us now turn to some of the ethnographic information that is relevant to past Islander fishing practices and then consider it with reference to the results of an analysis of fish remains, excavated from an old coastal village and ceremonial site known to the Islanders then and today as Gumu.


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