4. Discussion

All of the eight fish families identified within the archaeological deposit today inhabit areas of the near-shore zone. Their habitats include sandy foreshore, lagoon, fringing reef, mangrove and rocky headland, with most species found in more than one of these habitats. Members of the Carangidae, trevally, also commonly inhabit offshore reefs and deeper waters. All of the above habitats occur close to the old village site of Gumu, and all but one of the nine species identified could have been either speared or caught with hook and line. Scarids, or parrotfish, on account of their molar-like grinding "beaks", developed for browsing upon living corals and coralline algae, will rarely take a bait (Grant 1982, 571), but they can be speared or picked up by hand if trapped among the coral reef flats at low tide.

Seven of the eight families identified from the archaeological remains are found within the Mabuiag-English vocabulary list (Table 1). Only one family identified from the archaeological remains is not mentioned in the ethnography (Chaetodontidae), but 34 families are, which were not identified archaeologically (6 elasmobranch, 28 teleost). This figure should be taken as a minimum because not all the names of fish listed in the vocabulary were identified zoologically by Haddon, and there may have been many more fish known to the Islanders which were not recorded by Ray. Looking at the traditional fish classification and starting with the elasmobranchs, within the suborder Lamniformes, three specific types of shark (each within a different family) were recorded, and various others were referred to within a fourth family. The Rajiformes were represented by one kind of sawfish, and three kinds of ray (with nine Islander names differentiating them). As discussed earlier, some of the elasmobranchs had symbolic meaning in ceremonial activities and social organisation, though only one species from each order was recorded as being eaten. Sting-ray spines were important for their use as prongs on both ordinary spears and special ones used for magic only. Twenty per cent of the fish remains that were identified as vertebra (15% of the total sample of identified fish bones), were elasmobranch. They appear to be primarily ray vertebrae, with some either small shark or large ray. A few denticles and one ray spine were identified, as well as one small shark tooth. Identification beyond this general level will have to await more detailed analysis (e.g. X-ray analysis). How representative this small sample is of the entire site is not known, nor are the effects of pre- and post-depositional destructive forces on the survivorship of the cartilaginous fish bones (though, in general, one would not expect more than teeth or vertebral centrum in an archaeological deposit). The archaeological remains do, however, suggest that some were eaten, whether frequently or not, and the ethnography indicates that various types of elasmobranchs were significant to other aspects of island life.

Within the class Osteichthyes five families that were identified in the archaeological sample were also represented by fish recorded by Ray (Table 1). One family was not recorded ethnographically, the chaetodontids, but 28 not found archaeologically were. A greater number of families, however, might have been identified from the archaeological remains if there had not been such a high proportion of unidentifiable bones (75%; defined as nondescript fragments between 0.5-1.5mm, and fish spines). Moreover, of those identified (vertebral and cranial fragments), only 10% were identified to cranial element, and of those just over 5% to family. So, clearly, the ethnography reveals a much greater diversity of fish species known to the Islanders than does the present study.

As pointed out in the discussion of the cartilaginous fish remains, the extent to which the fish bone was altered by human or natural pre- and post-depositional factors is unknown, but this variable should not be ignored. For example, though the number of fish bones varied throughout the deposit, each level contained roughly the same number of identifiable bones (30%), and the same three most abundant families; labrids, scarids, and lethrinids. These results might reflect Islander preference for types of fish, or habitats exploited, or they may simply be an indication of a greater size and robustness of particular bones of particular species. If we first consider the high percentage of unidentifiable fish remains in the light of human behaviour, the quantity and condition of the bone could reflect the effects of many different factors, i.e. methods of fish preparation (extent of butchery); cooking (direct or indirect exposure to fire); consumption (chewing or swallowing bones); bone discarding (into fire, or on site surface); use of the site in relation both to duration of occupation and variation in on-site camping locations (trampling effects); burning or other surface clearance activities; and the introduction of domestic animals (dog and pig). Alternatively, the condition of the bone could be caused by natural taphonomic factors, i.e. the organic and inorganic processes that can alter bone both above and below ground. Of course it is most probable that both types of "destructive" factor contributed to producing the fish-bone assemblage studied here. In whatever way it did occur, there is certainly a great deal of information loss between past Islander fishing practices and the archaeological evidence of it if the bones discussed in this study are representative of the midden.

Does the ethnography offer any information that might help determine the extent to which human activities produced the fish-bone patterns found? The information on the preparation and cooking of fish may provide some clues. Only a small number of archaeological fish bones had visible signs of charring. This could be a result of fish being boiled, or roasted wrapped in pandanus leaves, or on wooden frames, or baked in an earth-oven, thus protecting any exposed fish bones (fins, tails, etc.) from direct flames. On the other hand, bones that were exposed to fire during or after cooking, may have been too heavily charred to survive at all. Haddon mentions where cooking took place, so if the bones were discarded near the cooking areas (inside or outside the house), they probably would have been walked upon. Although no traces of chewing have yet been identified on the fish remains, dogs were introduced to the islands sometime before effective European contact, and may well have altered the archaeological deposits. It would be difficult to "prove" which, if any, of the above methods of cooking fish contributed to the nature of the bones found in the midden deposits, because, frequently, different taphonomic processes alter bones in similar ways. But the ethnography at least provides us with some information with which to consider how humans could have been, in part, responsible for producing the kinds of patterns found in this fish-bone assemblage.

We can now turn to the question of what the archaeological analysis of fish remains from the old village site of Gumu tells us about past Mabuiag Islander fishing practices. The results of the analyses indicate that a relatively low diversity of near-shore fish, which were available all year round, were caught. The location and nature of the deposit excavated suggest that the people ate the fish at or near the site. The only other evidence of the procurement technology is nearby coastal stone-bordered enclosures, or fish traps. The quantities of bone found (even without assuming a considerable taphonomic loss) suggest that fish were an important part of the diet, as does the horizontal extent of the midden deposits. How do the ethnographic accounts substantiate these findings?

The ethnography demonstrates that many more types of fish were known to the Islanders, but supports the findings that the primary habitats exploited were those located near-shore. Haddon mentions seasonal use of the fish traps, because of weather conditions and shoals of fish visiting the shore, but not the kinds of fish that were caught during those times of the year. The archaeological remains offer no additional information here. The procurement technology is shown - not unexpectedly - to have been more elaborate than what was preserved archaeologically, although turtle-shell fish hooks might have survived. One sting-ray spine was recovered, but without the ethnographic account of its use, it would probably be interpreted as just part of the food remains. The Reports do confirm that this area on the southeastern coast of Mabuiag was a settlement site, where ceremonies for turtle hunting also took place (Haddon 1904, 330-3). The fish remains, however, do not suggest ceremonial activities, but they do indicate, more specifically, past locations of activity (eating and/or sleeping) within the entire Gumu area.

Lastly, we can consider the importance of fish in the diet as viewed in the enthnography. It is clear that the fish were a very important resource, but some inconsistencies in the accounts exist. It would be difficult to conclude, on the basis of certain sections in the enthnography, that fish were the most important source of meat in the diet. Some of Haddon's introductory comments, and those in his brief summary of the animal foods eaten, suggest that they were not. Meat from both turtle and dugong appear to have been of greater importance. Of course, compared with a fish, a dugong or turtle provides a large quantity (in bulk) of protein and fat. But were they as important as fish as a daily source of food? Other information in the ethnography suggests not. In several places, the availability of fish (and shellfish), as a daily and year-round food source is stressed, and there is one explicit statement that they were eaten nearly every day, in contrast to turtle and dugong. In two references to the scarcity of food on Mabuiag, fish are regarded as the exception. Thus it seems probable that fish were the most important daily source of meat. And who was responsible for procuring this recource? According to the Reports, if fish were from the near-shore habitats they would have been caught primarily by women. Thus, the archaeological fish samples studied here could be interpreted as having been caught entirely by women. However, that would only be true if men never fished in the near-shore zones, and in light of Haddon's comment that both sexes fished (even if men also or frequently fished in deeper offshore waters) there appears to be no way of testing this independently through the study of archaeological fish remains. The interpretation that women contributed a higher percentage of fish to the diet might be supported if more information were presented here on the entire range of subsistence activities, in particular on the relationships between the sexual division of labour and the type of resource, and the time of year that it was exploited.

That fish are not referred to as a feast food is perhaps significant. Fish were probably regarded as more of a common day-to-day meat food than either turtle or dugong. The greater detail recorded on the exploitation of turtle and dugong may support this idea, and/or reflect a male bias in the kinds of information recorded. Fish did however figure significantly in areas of life other than the immediate quest for food (although it could, perhaps, be argued that ceremonial activities and social organisation are intimately connected with how a people fulfil their physiological needs). Obviously, with access to detailed and comprehensive ethnographic accounts, it is possible to come closer to understanding the relationships between a people's "economic" and "social" and "religious" practices.

An analysis of archaeological fish remains and ethnographic accounts which provide relevant information about fish, as presented here, highlights the richness of past human behaviour in relation to fish which could never be detected archaeologically. Study of ethnographic data, when available, can also lead us to approach excavated data with new questions, in this case about the fish remains, even if archaeological correlates cannot be found. However, any type of archaeological remains can provide us with certain information that ethnographic data cannot. They represent direct, indisputable evidence of settlement, and of a way of life that existed prior to contact with Europeans. However incomplete, they are the only form of evidence we have from earlier (prehistoric) time periods, and they may or may not lend support to any recorded ethnographic observations. In fact, it is with reference to this point that we see a fault in Haddon's powers of observation and foresight: "Kitchen middens are not formed now, nor did I come across traces of ancient refuse heaps" (Haddon 1912, 131), and "I consider it improbable that much will ever be found to illustrate the former condition of the people" (Haddon 1890, 303). This study owes much to the comprehensive and detailed nature of Haddon's observations, but it also goes some way towards showing that his view of the archaeological potential of the Torres Strait Islands was unnecessarily pessimistic.


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