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Report: Faunals (page 2)

Report on Zooarchaeological Remains from the Seven Site,
Nikumaroro, Phoenix Islands

July 5, 2008

Sharyn Jones
Department of Anthropology
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Heritage Hall, Rm. # 315
Birmingham, AL 35294-3350
Email: sharynj@uab.edu

Discussion and Conclusions

Habitat and Ecology

Almost any of the commonly identified fish species from the Seven Site assemblage will take a hook, but all of these fishes could also have been collected with a spear or net of some kind (a cast net, scoop net, or gill net). The assemblage includes a diverse collection (see Appendix C for the diversity calculations) of common reef-associated species that would also inhabit the lagoon, especially when they are young and small-bodied. Indeed, the majority of the fishes in the Seven Site assemblage are small or medium bodied fishes that would inhabit the lagoon and near-shore reef. Serranids and Carangids are by far the most abundant species identified; they contribute 17.6% each to the total MNI and 7.1 % and 12.9 %, respectively to the total biomass (see Table 1). It is possible that all of the fishes in the assemblage were collected on the lagoon side of the island or on the near-shore reef edge. However, I suspect that collecting in the lagoon would be easier and somewhat safer for someone that was not familiar with the island.

Marine Biological surveys of the Phoenix Island Group, including Nikumaroro, have found that the Gymnosarda unicolor (Dogtooth tuna) was especially abundant prior to 2001 (representing up to 75% of the large fish sampled) as was the reef shark population (Uwate and Teroroko 2007). Dogtooth tuna is known to occur around coral reefs; this species is generally solitary or found in schools of six or less (Froese and Pauly 2004). Given their common occurrence on coral reefs and in the inshore area, it is therefore not surprising that both tuna (Scombridae) and reef shark (Carcharhinidae) were identified from the Seven Site assemblage.4 Either could easily have been taken with a hook and handline or with a spear.

Importantly, there may be ecological reasons to think that the people who created the Seven Site assemblages were not Indigenous Pacific Islanders. First, the Seven Site is on the windward side of the island. Pacific Islanders generally prefer to position their atoll villages on the leeward side of an island, which is more protected. Second, Pacific Islanders know, and marine biological surveys have confirmed (see surveys cited in Uwate and Teroroko 2007:36-37), that the numbers of fishes and fish species in the lagoon decrease with increased distance from the lagoon opening. Specifically, in the Phoenix Island surveys, marine biologists found that, “The richest fish populations were on the reef slope outside the lagoon” (Uwate and Teroroko 2007:37). The Seven Site is located far from the lagoon opening on Nikumaroro. Therefore, the people who placed their camp at the Seven Site were either uninterested in easy access to a diverse and abundant supply fish or they had no knowledge of how to easily access local marine resources.

Comparison Between the 2001 and 2007 Fish Bones

When comparing the material I identified from the 2007 excavations to that from the 2001 excavations I noticed four trends.5 First, the 2001 material does not appear to be significantly different in character, make up, or abundance than the 2007 material. The 2001 material contained some Acanthurids, Parrotfish scales, bone of Perciformes (likely Serranids), Carangid caudal scutes (especially in the “Hole” unit), and bird bones. The “Slope” unit contained turtle, Perciformes, and a large Acanthurid, represented by a relitvely large hyomandibular (a fish about 40-50 cm in TL). In particular, the 4D M-1, and M-2 features contained material that looks very much like what I analyzed from the 2007 excavations.

Second, both the 2001 and 2007 excavations contained an abundance of Carangids and Holocentrids. These two families were identified from every feature/unit excavated in 2001. Carangids were major components of the material I identified, being present in all the features. However, in the 2007 material, Holocentrids were only identified from WR-1. It is possible that these two families are naturally abundant in Nikumaroro’s marine environment. Both were commonly noted in numerous marine biological surveys of the island (Uwate and Teroroko 2007:38).

Third, when looking over the 2001 material, I noticed that the Carangid bone from unit “2D, Old #3” was relatively large, likely coming from a couple individuals (average anterior width of vertebrae is 11.45 mm, representing a fish that is about 45-50 cm TL). This fish, or fishes, from 2D is larger than most, but not all, of the Carangid material I analyzed from the 2007 excavations. The 2001 material from 2D is less frequently burned than the material I analyzed, but some of the 2-D bone is clearly from burn features.

Fourth, The assemblages from both the 2001 and the 2007 excavations are of relatively small sample sizes (WR-1 had the highest frequency of fauna, with a total MNI of 47). The 2001 identifications calculated a total MNI of only 27 for all the excavation units, and the MNI estimates from each of the features examined ranged from 1-7. The 2001 and 2007 assemblages (each excavation unit or site being an assemblage: 2D, 4D, M-1, SL-2, etc.) are so small and spatially distinct that they appear to represent single incidents of eating and cooking. The WR-1 assemblage is significantly larger, but still relatively small in comparison to archaeological features I have examined from various Pacific Island archaeological sites. The WR-1 fauna might represent a few cooking and eating incidents and/or the remains of meals consumed by more than one individual.

The patterns observed in the Seven Site fauna is unusual in my experiences analyzing assemblages created by Pacific Islanders.  Based on the condition and frequency of the faunal remains from the Seven Site I agree with the interpretation of this site as an encampment and one that was likely created by castaways who were not Pacific Islanders.

Important Questions

A number of important questions were posed in the TIGHAR preliminary report on the excavations of the Triangle Site and the Seven Site. I will answer these directly below, using data from my analysis of the 2007 faunal materials and drawing from my experiences identifying zooarchaeological assemblages and fishing with Pacific Islanders in Micronesia, Fiji, and Polynesia.

1. How many individuals are represented?
    Depending on the interpretation, conservative vs. non-conservative, there are 46-75 individual fishes and turtles represented by the 2007 excavated material from the Seven Site (see Appendix A).
2. What species are represented?
    See Table 1. At least 21 distinct taxa were identified (> 20 fish, a Reef shark, and Sea turtles). This estimate is based on the bone I was able to identify to Family, genus, or species, but it is likely a vast underestimate of the actual diversity contained in the assemblage. My identifications are biased and limited by the fragmentary nature of the bones and the breadth of my comparative collection.
3. Where and how easily could the taxa represented in the assemblage have been procured?

The diversity and size of the fishes suggests that a net could have been used for collecting the fish, and/or the collector was indiscriminate in their collection. A net would be the easiest way to capture this diverse assemblage or relatively small-bodied fishes. However, the fish species represented could have been captured with a spear or taken with a hook and hand line. I have found that when fishing in a relatively unexploited habitat, throwing a hook in the water with some bait (crab or other invertebrate) will almost always result in a quick and easy catch. Using a spear to collect fish is the most difficult of the three methods identified here.

Capturing turtles would have been extremely easy if the turtles were nesting, or if they were recently hatched. Turtles may be taken when they are breeding in the water as well. Invertebrates, including Giant clams, crabs, and various gastropods are also easy to collect; it takes very little effort or skill to assemble a meal of invertebrates.

4. How were they prepared and cooked?
    Based on the physical state of the fish, bird, and turtle bones (being very fragmentary and mostly burned on an open fire), I argue that the animals were cooked on an open fire. They were likely just thrown on hot coals and fire. The turtle bone is so fragmentary and burned that it suggests that turtles were likely cooked in their shells on the open fire.
5. What parts were used and not used?
    Table 5 lists the elements represented in the assemblage. In the 2007 material, 22% of the fish bone comes from the crania and 78% of the bone is postcranial. Much of the postcrania are represented by vertebrae. Fragments of carapace and plastron form the majority of turtle remains. It is unclear what body parts of the animals were eaten and what parts were not, however, the recovered bones represent a relatively unbiased deposition of bone into the features/units. As I stated above, the person or people who cooked and consumed the fishes represented in the Seven Sites apparently threw out all the bones in virtually the same way, that is: consuming all or part of each fish and disposing of the remains in or on the fire features.
6. How many individual cooking and eating episodes are represented?
    It is impossible to answer this question with the faunal data alone. However, as explained above, I believe that the features or units each represent one or more eating and cooking episodes. The larger features, where the majority of the bone was recovered, such as WR-1 likely represent multiple eating and cooking events.
7. About how many people could have subsisted, for how long, from each episode?

The answer to this question depends on how many fishes the people caught and consumed. For example, if a person consumes an average of five of these small fish each day (this would be on the low end of a typical level of consumption for a Pacific Islander, see Jones, in press), WR-1 with 47 MNI could represent eating episodes over about nine and a half days. However, this feature also includes a sea turtle which could sustain a person for a couple of days, but it could also have been consumed in a single sitting and along with other foods (fishes, crabs, giant clams, etc.). At a rate of five fish a day, the SL-2 and SL-3 features could represent two and three days of meals. Of course this estimate assumes that our faunal assemblage includes an accurate representation of all the individual fishes eaten, but we know that the archaeologically recovered fauna is subject to many transformational processes which impact our data set.

If people were eating, but on the verge of starvation and were not adept fishers, they might be hard pressed to collect five fish each day. Then again, fishing on a relatively pristine atoll like Nikumaroro, even an inexperienced fisher could be expected to have very good luck collecting fish, and of course turtles and invertebrates.

8. Could one or two individuals have carried the number of Tridacna at the site, and the weight of the turtle meat represented by the bones found there, to the site form their places of procurement?

It is entirely possible that one or two hungry individuals could have carried the Giant clams to the site, depending on how long they spent at this encampment. Tridacna gigas, as the TIGHAR report identifies the clams, are one of the most versatile of Tridacna species (Munro 1993:434). They are found in a variety of habitats, around both high- and low-islands and on lagoon and fringing reefs. Therefore, they could have been collected on either the lagoon side of Nikumaroro or on the seaward reef.

In terms of indigenous exploitation patterns, Pacific Islanders typically leave clam shells in place and extract the meat from the animal where it sits on the reef. The exception to this pattern is when the shells are desired for tool construction or other use. Munro discusses this point and the way that Micronesians exploit Giant clams, saying that,

“Fishing methods for giant clams are exceedingly simple. In remote areas where the shells have no significant value and have strong byssal attachments to the reef, the flesh is simply excised from the shells by slipping a sharp knife along the inner surface of the shell to cut one end of the adductor muscle. This also applies to the larger species in which the shell is too heavy to be readily lifted from the water” (Munro 1993:441).

Based on my experiences fishing and collecting with Pacific Islanders on the reef, and my analyses of shell middens, I suspect that the piles of Giant clams at the Seven Site were not deposited by Micronesians. This depositional pattern is a-typical of Pacific Islanders, who generally do not bring entire shells to their domestic sites unless they have plans to use the shell for specific purposes. It is more likely that this material was deposited by Europeans or Westerners, peoples of non-Pacific Island descent.

It is also worth noting that in a 1995 survey of Nikumaroro by the Government of Kiribati, “[Giant] Clams were observed ne[ar] the village of Niku facing Maroro…Clam density was 2 to 3 clams/m2” (cited in Uwate and Teroroko 2007:29). It is likely that clam density was higher in the past, but if clams occurred at a density of 2-3/m2 it would be relatively easy to collect a mass of Giant clams in a small area over a period of two-four days, working a couple hours at a time through out each day.

9. Generally, are the species represented and the way in which they are prepared, more consistent with traditional Micronesian and Polynesian subsistence practices or with those of Europeans camping out?
    As I explained above, I believe that the nature of the material in the Seven Site faunal assemblage suggests collection by non-native Pacific Islanders.

4 I was unable to identify the tuna to genus or species with my comparative collection.
5 It should be noted that the 2001 data could not be used to estimate biomass since no specimen weights were provided.  If TIGHAR is interested in obtaining this secondary data, I am willing to discuss the prospect of reexamining the 2001 bones.

References Cited

  • Froese, R. and D. Pauly (editors). 2004. Fishbase. World Wide Web electronic publication, http://www.fishbase.org/search.cfm, version 03/2004, accessed June-July, 2008.
  • Jones, S. in press (2008). “Contemporary Subsistence and Foodways in the Lau Islands Fiji: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Non-optimal Foraging and Irrational Economics.” In, Ethnozooarchaeology: The Present Past of Human-animal Relationships, edited by U. Albarella. Oxbow Books, Oxford, UK.
  • Krebs, Charles J. 1989. Ecological Methodology. New York: Benjamin Cummings.
  • Munro, John L. 1993. “Giant clams.” In, Nearshore Marine Resources of the South Pacific: Information for Fisheries Development and Management, edited by Andrew Wright and Lance Hill, pp. 431-449. Institute of Pacific Studies, Suva; Forum Fisheries Agency, Honiara; and, International Center for Ocean Development, Canada.
  • Myers, Robert F. 1991. Micronesian Reef Fishes: A Practical Guide to the Identification of the Coral Reef Fishes of the Tropical Central and Western Pacific. Second Edition. Coral Graphics, Guam.
  • O’Day, S. Jones 2001. “Excavations at the Kipapa Rockshelter, Kahikinui, Maui, Hawai’i.&rduo; Asian Perspectives 40 (2):279-304.
  • Reitz, Elizabeth J. and Elizabeth S. Wing. 1999. Zooarchaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Reitz, Elizabeth J., Irvy R. Quitmyer, H. S. Hale, Sylvia J. Scudder, and Elizabeth S. Wing. 1987. “Application of allometry to zooarchaeology.” American Antiquity 52(2):304-317
  • Uwate, K. Roger and Tukabu Teroroko. 2007. “The Phoenix Islands Protected Area Management Plan, First Draft 2-5-07.” Phoenix Islands Protected Area Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Agricultural Development, Government of Kiribati.
  • Wing, E. S. 1998. “The Sustainability of Resources used by Native Americans on five Caribbean Islands.” Paper presented at the ICAZ meeting in Victoria, B.C., Canada, August 1998.

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