2. Ethnography

According to the Gumulaigs, or past Islanders of Mabuiag, the beginning of the year is recognised by the mating of the green turtle (Chelonia mydas). The name of this "season", Surlal, means copulating turtle, and it falls within the month of October. This is the end of the dry season which is characterised by continuously blowing southeastern trade winds and fine weather. The shark constellation baidam appears, and food is abundant. Yams are still eaten, both wild (boa) and cultivated (sauur, kutai) varieties, as well as taro, sweet potato and other edible plants. The first thunder (doiam) signals the time to start planting yams, and the coming of the Raz season, or "time of die" (Haddon 1912, 225-228). This description is based upon a record of the Islanders' categorisation of the seasons of the year.

Ten other periods of the year were recognised by the Islanders and defined according to environmental conditions that changed or were expected to change, e.g. direction of wind, amount of rain, position of stars or constellations, and resource availability. The descriptions of the different periods are brief, and the only reference to fish is the appearance of the shark constellation, baidam. However, there are references to the exploitation and consumption of fish in six sections of the Reports: as part of an introductory description of the Islanders' daily life (Haddon 1912, 1-6); in a summary of all the animal foods eaten on Mabuiag (Haddon 1912, 137-9); in a chapter on hunting and fishing practices (Haddon 1912, 154-9); in Haddon's discussion of magico-religious practices (Haddon 1904, 342-5); in a chapter on totemism (Haddon 1904:162-71); and in a vocabulary list of Mabuiag-English words (Haddon 1907, 88-131).

In the first of these references, fishing is described in this way:

"A little fishing is indulged in by both sexes when they feel inclined for a change in diet; but at certain periods fishing becomes more of a general occupation. At low tide men, women, and children may be seen searching the reef for shellfish and fish which have become imprisoned in rock-pools, but as a rule this simple collecting is done more by the women and children. Although serious fishing is more particularly men's work the women also take a part, but definite fishing expeditions and the quest of dugong and turtle are confined to the men. Practically the fishing of the women is limited to that which they can undertake on the fringing reef of their home island." (Haddon 1912, 3).

The initial impression afforded by this description is that fishing was not of great importance throughout the year, although it was, perhaps, at certain times of the year. Secondly, it appears that a degree of sexual division of labour was associated with fishing. It is not clear what "when they feel inclined for a change of diet" refers to. Does it refer to a change from other traditional animal food sources, e.g. shellfish, turtle and dugong; or to a change from eating primarily wild or cultivated plant foods; or was Haddon referring to a change from a reliance on European tinned food? Towards the end of this same introductory section Haddon does, however, mention the importance of fish in the diet: "Life was certainly not so easy for the Western Islanders. The islands are less fertile and the inhabitants had to depend to a larger extent than the Eastern Islanders on the spontaneous produce of the soil (which was not of much account) and on fishing" (Haddon 1912, 6).

In the summary of animal foods eaten on Mabuiag Island, Haddon comments on the relative importance and diversity of animals eaten. The dugong is described as being an important food source, particularily on Mabuiag due to its proximity to the reefs over which they abound, but the various species of sea-turtles, which inhabit the Strait, and their eggs, were considered the most important source of meat. Numerous kinds of fish were eaten, although only the carpet shark im, (Eucrossorhinus sp.), and the shovel-nosed ray, kaigas (Rhinobatis sp.) are named by Haddon. Uzi, a stonefish (Synanceia sp.) was employed in magic but "young men might not eat it ('he too cold') although old men and women might" (Haddon 1912, 139). However, it is important to note that in an earlier discussion in this chapter on the overall diet of the Islanders (Haddon 1912, 130-43), Haddon states that "fish and shellfish are eaten nearly every day, with occasional meals of turtle and dugong; the two latter are especially "rich" or oily (Haddon 1912, 130). In contrast to turtle and dugong, fish are not mentioned as a food eaten during feasts.

Haddon goes into greater detail on fishing practices in the chapter on hunting and fishing, and the information he records may be summarised as follows. Fishing is one of the subsistence strategies carried out throughout the year by both men and women. The fishing technology consists of 1) jabbing hooks (of various sizes ranging from 38-100mm) made from turtle shell (karar-tud), and wood (ngail), and the line made from coconut fibre; 2) single-pointed and multi-pronged spears, the prongs being made of wood, bamboo, or stingray spines; and 3) graz, or stone-constructed fish traps. Nets were not used. Spearing was described as the most common method of catching fish. Fish were speared by either walking along the shore or reef at low tide, or from canoes. Women, in particular, are mentioned as spearing all kinds of small fish and collecting shellfish on the fringing reefs at low tide. They were recorded as using only single-pointed spears (which were often a stick sharpened at one end), either the takai, a pointed stick about 0.76m long, used for catching fish, or the pat, a small sharply pointed stick used for spearing octopus. Men used the bager, the largest simple spear for catching big fish and turtle, or the rad, or rada, a long straight stick with a sharp point. Five types of multi-pronged spear were recorded, and one, the suai, a small spear tipped with stingray spines, was described as being used only by the maidelaig (sorcerer). Another method was also recognised as being used to catch fish: stupefaction. "Parts of certain plants were scraped and pounded or bruised and placed in pools or lagoons on the reef at low tide to stupefy fish, which were easily caught as they floated on the surface" (Haddon 1912, 159). Ibabu and itamar (Indigofera australis) were plants "like milk inside" which were used to kill fish and eels (Haddon 1912, 159). In addition, sazi was defined as a creeper used to poison fish (Haddon 1907, 121), and zozi as a root scraped or pounded and also used as a fish poison (either Derris uliginosa or Rhynchosia sp.) (Haddon 1907, 130).

In this chapter mention of particular fish species and of seasonal behaviour pertains primarily to fish caught off the eastern island of Mer. However, eels are mentioned in reference to the plant stupefacients used, and two species caught off Mabuiag are depicted in fig. 17 (Haddon 1912, 157), which shows one man fishing with a hook and line in a hole in a coral rock for a wad fish (referred to by Haddon as "a fish with blue spots (Blenny sp.)", a member of the family Blenniidae, and another man spearing a fish called a poadi (Lethrinus sp.). The definitions of the Islander names for these and other fish are found in the Mabuiag-English vocabulary list compiled by the linguist of the expedition, S.H. Ray (Haddon 1907, 88-131). In this list Islander names of 69 types of fish are given, 47 of which are identified to at least generic level (8 cartilaginous, 39 bony), within 39 families (7 cartilaginous, 32 bony; see Table 1). The habitats described for fishing are almost all near the shore: sandy lagoons, mangrove creeks and mudflats, rocky headlands, and fringing reefs. The exception refers to locations frequented by the men on fishing and hunting expeditions. These include offshore reefs and waters, sand-banks where turtle eggs were collected, and distant reefs where, at low spring tides, shells were sought to be used domestically (for pots and utensils) or for the making of ornaments (Haddon 1912, 3 and 154).

Some information on the preparation and cooking of fish is also provided: "The larger fish are gutted before being cooked, and may be boiled in fresh water in a shell saucepan, alup or bu, roasted over the fire, or cooked in an earth-oven. Fish are often wrapped in pandanus leaves when being roasted. When not required for immediate use the fish are dried in the sun, dried and smoked, or slightly roasted on a bamboo framework hung over a fire or on a light wooden frame, noai, noi, under which a fire has been lit" (Haddon 1912, 139). Cooking was carried out either inside or outside the house, more generally inside, with the earth-oven always located outside (Haddon 1912, 131). Dugong and turtle meat were also cooked, dried and stored for use during the northwest monsoon season, on canoe trips, or as items of trade.

In his discussion of Islander ceremonial practices related to fishing, Haddon describes the Waiitutu kap, or saw-fish dance that he saw performed in 1888 on one of the islands in the southwestern group. The verses sung speak of shoals of fish visiting the shore and of the building of fish weirs, or traps, in their route, i.e. graz. Haddon further interprets the songs as relating to the beginning of the rainy season: "a time when vegetation is renewed after the parching of the dry season and shoals of fish visit the shore; in other words it is the beginning of a period of renewed life and plenty and consequently a time of rejoicing and dancing" (Haddon 1904, 343). He then describes the fish traps as "long low walls of unworked boulders of coral rock piled 3-4 feet high enclosing large irregular areas on the eastern aspect of fringing reefs" (Haddon 1912, 158-9), and states that he was told that they were used in the wet season on days when the sea was calm. Fish would swim over the walls on the incoming tide, and be caught within the trap as the tide went out. According to one of Haddon's informants, no Islander within living memory ever made a fish trap, and all they could do was repair them (though Haddon cites (1912, 159) an early 19th-century report by Lewis of Eastern Islanders making them). "During the southeast monsoon season, as they are then on the weather side, the walls are broken down by the seas rolling in on them and thus no fish can then be taken" (Haddon 1912, 159). Fish traps have been found on some of the islands in the southwestern group, but the greatest number of traps recorded thus far from any western island in the Strait are on the coast of Mabuiag (Harris and Ghaleb 1987, 30). Nine fish-traps have been identified from Mabuiag alone, with five more on its surrounding islets.

Haddon did not see the fish dance performed on Mabuiag, but he mentions that the participants were not necessarily all from the southwestern islands, although he was uncertain about which and how many islands were represented (Haddon 1935, 67). However the fish masks worn during the ceremony were common throughout the Strait (Haddon 1904, 343). These did, in fact, depict certain species of fish: shark, hammer-head shark, and large mackerel. Although no other fish species are mentioned here, Haddon's record of the seasonal use of fish traps may have significant archaeological implications.

Study of the ethnography has shown that fish were of symbolic importance in relation to a change in "season" (hence resource exploitation), and ceremonial activity (the waiitutu dance). Fish were also significant symbolically in another realm of Mabuiag Islander life, one which intimately influenced their social organisation: totemism. The communities on Mabuiag, as well as the others in the western Strait, were totemic ones. Haddon defines a totem as "a class of objects that is reverenced by a body of men and women who acknowledge a definite relationship to that class of objects. The group of men and women united by common totem is known as clan or kin, and there are social obligations that are binding on the fellow clansmen" (Haddon 1904, 153).

The clans on Mabuiag were formally grouped into two divisions, each with chief and subsidiary totems. The grouping of the totems corresponded to the mode of life of the totem animals; one being all land animals, the other marine (Haddon 1904, 172). Haddon recorded 14 totems, six of which were different kinds of fish: Gapu, the sucker-fish (Echeneis naucrates) (used when hunting certain kinds of turtles); Kaigas, the shovel-nosed ray (Rhinobatis sp.); Wad, a kind of blenny; Baidam, the shark (Carcharias and perhaps other genera); Kursi, the hammer-headed shark (Sphyrna sp.); and Tapimul, various kinds of rays (Haddon 1904, 154). Kaigas was the chief totem of an important clan that lived at Gumu, with Surlal (green turtle), and Umai (dog) as subsidiary totems. There were totem taboos that restricted the consumption of animals which were totems. A clan member was not allowed to kill or eat the totem of his clan. However there were two exceptions to this rule; Dangal, dugong, and Surlal, green turtle, because of the importance of their meat as food. "In all the islands flesh-meat, excluding fish, is very scarce, and it would be too much to expect the members of these two clans to abstain entirely from eating their respective totems" (Haddon 1904, 186). In the case of the Kaigas clan of Gumu, even if the members refrained from eating the shovel-nosed ray, there would have been numerous other types of ray to eat. This totemic affiliation might be detected archaeologically if the morphology of the vertebrae of similar-sized rays (the most common archaeological remains of rays), can be distinguished from those of the shovel-nosed. However, if any other type of clan member lived at Gumu, there would have been no restriction on their eating the shovel-nosed ray, which, moreover, was described, in another section of the Reports, as the one kind of ray eaten!

Following discussion of Haddon's references to fish, we must ask what aspects, if any, might be detected archaeologically? According to the information on the procurement technology used (assuming that most organic remains would not survive), we might expect to find remnants of turtle-shell fish hooks, sting-ray spines (used as spear points) and stone-bordered fish traps. With reference to the methods of fish preparation described, we might interpret fragments of the shellfish Melo sp., or Syrinx sp., as indicators of boiling fish, though meat, tubers and roots were also formerly boiled in large shells (Haddon 1912, 131). In relation to the ceremonial activities described, fragments of turtle-shell fish masks might be recovered. The remains of fish eaten, however, are most likely to provide the bulk of direct evidence for past fish exploitation. It is therefore worthwhile considering what interpretations may result from an analysis of the fish-bone remains when such analysis is related to the relevant ethnographic information.

Haddon refers to the "simple collecting" of fish and shellfish on the reefs at low-tide as primarily the domain of women and children, and "serious" fishing as that of the men, in particular offshore fishing during canoe expeditions. However, men are described as collecting with women and children, and women as "taking a part" in serious fishing. If women's fishing was, in general, limited to fish caught immediately off the shores or fringing reef of their island home, and only men engaged in offshore fishing, the species of fish identified from the archaeological deposits might allow female or male fishing practices to be discriminated. Thus, sexual divisions of labour may be reflected in the archaeological fish remains, if the fish identified are specific to the habitats recorded in the ethnography as being frequented primarily by women or men. Quantification of the species recovered might provide information on the past male or female contributions of fish to the diet.

Haddon reports the use of the graz, or fish traps, during the wet season on days when the sea was calm, and interprets phrases of the ceremonial fish dance he observed as referring to shoals of fish being caught during that time in the traps. Thus certain species of fish recovered archaeologically may be indicators of seasonal use of the fish traps and/or seasonal occupation of the site.

Table 1 lists the Mabuiag Islanders' names of fish recorded and identified taxonomically by Haddon. We are provided with a range of cartilaginous and bony fish known to the Islanders a century ago, which we can regard as having been exploited by their ancestors before European contact and therefore potentially present in the midden deposits studied today. Having discussed the nature and relevance of the ethnographic information, we can now turn to the results of an analysis of fish remains from one such site on Mabuiag Island.


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