Prehistoric Fishing in Palau, Micronesia: Evidence from the Northern Rock Islands

Article excerpt


We report on an assemblage of well preserved fish remains recovered from the site of Chelechol ra Orrak in the Rock Islands of Palau. This is only the second such study to date in Palau and one of the few for the region, indicating the need to better understand the role marine resources played in the adaptation and development of early Micronesian societies. Results demonstrate that Palauans were fishing by at least 1700 BP, several hundred years earlier than previously recorded, and that they exploited a wide range of fish taxa, primarily from inner reef and lagoonal habitats. Our study also suggests that the diversity of fish decreased over time, perhaps due to overharvesting and/or changes in subsistence patterns, similar to what other researchers have reported in the Pacific.

Keywords: fishing, subsistence, Rock Islands, Palau, Micronesia


Archaeological investigations in the Pacific demonstrate that fish were an important part of the prehistoric diet. In contrast to other parts of Oceania, however (e.g. Ayres, 1979; Leach and Anderson 1979; Goto 1986; Dye 1990; Nagaoka 1994, 2000; Leach et al. 1997; Butler 1988, 2001; Leach and Davidson 2001; Allen 1992, 2002; Allen et al. 2001), there has been a dearth of studies dedicated to examining fish from archaeological assemblages in Micronesia (see Fleming 1986; Leach et al. 1988; Masse 1989; Kataoka 1996 for the few major studies to date). This is surprising considering the size of the region (7.4 million [km.sup.2]), number of islands and reef islets (approximately 3,000), and accounts testifying to Micronesian's extensive knowledge of capturing fish and sea mammals (Johannes 1981). In Palau, western Micronesia there has been only one major study of archaeological fish remains (Masse 1989), with several smaller assemblages reported by Takayama (Hayakawa 1979) and Osborne (1979:343-347), but with limited analysis.

Although these earlier studies in Palau have helped to improve our understanding of prehistoric fishing strategies, they were hampered by poor recovery techniques. Masse (1989) and Osborne (1979), for example, both used 1/4" (6.4 mm) screen instead of 1/8" (3.2 mm) or smaller, the former of which is known to underestimate certain faunal classes (see Gordon 1993; Nagaoka 1994; Allen 2002). (1) Also problematic is that there have been no cross-comparisons of archaeofish assemblages made within and between other islands in Palau or Micronesia. This is unfortunate considering that fish are highly nutritious, readily available, provide an important source of protein, and are commonly found in Micronesian archaeological sites, especially in coralline environments where preservation is good.

Masse's (1989) research, although exhaustive and detailed, primarily focused on sites in the very southern part of the archipelago which dated back to only ca. 1350 BP. Recent excavations by Fitzpatrick (2003a) in the northern Rock Islands reveal that substantial fish remains date back to at least 1700-1600 BP with fishbone present in even lower strata dating to ca. 3000 BP.

To provide both a spatial and temporal comparison for prehistoric fishing in Palau, we present data from the northern Rock Islands and compare our findings to sites in the southern part of the archipelago. Biological surveys suggest that there are differences in both marine and freshwater species richness between island types and geographical locales in Palau (Donaldson 2002; Donaldson and Myers 2002), a reflection of its high level of marine biodiversity. This makes it possible to also compare fish remains from geographically and temporally distinctive sites in Palau with modern biological data. Ultimately, we establish that there were a variety of fish taxa procured by early Palauans, demonstrating the importance fishing had to the subsistence strategies of inhabitants today (Johannes 1981) and in the past. Based on our preliminary analysis, the data suggest that fishing probably became less important and intensive over time, a trend seen elsewhere in Oceania (Allen et al. …