Yap State, FSM - April 1999
April 10, 1999
The trip to Fais was principally geared toward the celebration of the completion of the traditional menstrual house, but it was also intended for me to get a brief introduction to the island. Ever since Janet Davidson did her pioneering work in the 1960s on atoll research, she proved once and for all that atolls do retain an archaeological record, a record that can be traced to relatively early time depths. For Fais, the archaeologist who expended some effort in documenting at least an outline of the culture history is Michiko Intoh. Fais is not an atoll per se, but it is a raised coral platform island, and to Michiko this suggested that there was a potential for deep cultural deposits --- deeper at least than what one might encounter in the low islands of an atoll. Her interest is mainly pottery, and looking at the movement of pottery through the Caroline Islands. Pottery, any pottery, would have had to be brought into Fais and any other coral island or atoll. There are no clay-bearing deposits in these environments. By extension, if one can determine where the pottery originated, you can, by extension, build up a case for contact between the residents of Fais and the place from which the pottery came.
She excavated a series of test pits beginning in the interior of the easternmost village on the island and continued outward to the coast of this same village. She selected this particular transect, she said, because it contained a great many surface archaeological remains and midden deposits. My guides, provided to me by the paramount chief, took me to only two of the test pits; one is now planted in bananas, the other is used as a trash pit. Looking at the walls of the pits, though, you could see why Michiko selected these locations. The midden is deep and dark, and while the area was now overgrown with pioneering, ground-covering vegetation, such middens are often associated with traditional artifacts. In her report, she describes the surface collections around these areas --- complete with adzes, beads and other artifacts.
Her test pits ranged from shallow soil depths in the interior reaches of her transect to nearly 3 meters deep in her coastal testing pit. She also came up with some significant findings. First and foremost was a time depth of nearly two thousand years, with the earliest levels associated with green schist stones --- a metamorphic rock from Yap. Pottery throughout the culture-bearing strata also reflected the pottery sequence she had observed on Yap, from calcareous sand-tempered pottery in the earliest levels, overlain in succession by plainware and finally, the latest in the sequence, laminated pottery (a manufacturing method unique to Yap). At the time her report was written, she was still awaiting the results of petrographic analyses on some of the pottery samples to see if they indeed matched the pottery and clay sources from Yap. Based on style and composition alone, however, the majority of pottery fragments seemed to match Yapese pottery more than anywhere else. She also turned up a couple of fish-hook fragments that looked like no other Micronesian compound hooks --- based on style and material, these fragments appear to come from the Solomons beginning about A.D. 500. Finally, something of the faunal remains of the past: in her preliminary analysis, she notes that pigs and shark appear in the earliest levels, with dogs coming into the sequence about A.D. 500; of course, as with any island population, fish made up the majority of the diet.
The findings of Michiko suggest people have been moving around this part of the Pacific for at least two thousand years --- and it wasn't just a random movement, but directed. There was a purpose behind it, whether for economic or other needs; in any event, such a movement suggests an ongoing communication between settled populations --- the group that called Fais home and those from other places, such as Yap and the Solomon Islands.
We prepared for our takeoff with the usual emergency pep talk, the pilot explaining that we each had life jackets under our seats. He couldn't quite stand fully erect, however, owing to the low ceiling in the plane. He looked rather awkward as he tried to demonstrate how you put it on, though cautioning us not to put air in it until after we get off the plane, saying we would will know when to put it on when we saw him put his on. Some of the passengers were more prepared for a dunk in the water than others.
In less than an hour we were there. As I said, Fais is a small limestone platform island. The geological forces that have come into play here are probably many. The end result is an island that appears uplifted at one end, where a rocky, cliff coastline faces the ocean and gets bombarded with every wave. The other end of the island has sandy beaches. A small fringing reef is formed around a portion of the island; obviously that portion with the beaches. The airstrip is in the center of the island, in the middle of the phosphate mining scar.
There are only three villages on the island, all clustered in one corner, laying side by side. I am told there is an intense rivalry between the villages. Our event today was held in the village of Falyuw, the largest village on the island. For the ceremony we attended, only those families in Falyuw attended, and any relatives they have in the neighboring villages. If no relatives, then those folks in the neighboring villages did not attend. I asked my guide (he was showing me places where Michiko Intoh had worked during her archaeological research on the island) how you could tell when you left one village and entered another. The villages are right next to one another, and as we walked down the road he would say we are now in this village. Naturally, I would say, How can you tell? And he would laugh.
The Germans mined phoshate in the center of the island; these mines were eventually taken over and worked during the Japanese occupation. The scarring is still visible, and you can see it in one of the pictures I sent. It is the lighter vegetation in the middle of the island, the entire middle. One estimate I received was that nearly one-third of the island was mined --- in strip-mining fashion.
The rails from the mining have been reused in many a fashion --- as in a small support for cooking pots, for pig pens and such. I am told that some of the rails are still in place. The rails were used originally to take the phosphate to the waiting ships.
My guides. They were provided by the paramount chief to take me to Intoh's site.
Recycled rails from the mine
On our way to Michiko Intoh's test pits
Women and children gathered for lunch on the beach
The ceremony celebrating completion of a traditional menstrual hut. Now, however, it is called the Faliyon Women Association's Cultural Center. They are very proud of it. It is indeed quite striking in appearance, especially against the backdrop of the adjacent lagoon.
It is a very pretty building, as you can see in the pictures, with walls of woven matting, a thatched roof, mats hanging over the rafters, three fire pits inside, and coconut sennit lashing the posts together.
A formal entry was prepared for the celebration
Looking toward the lagoon
One of three fire pits in the menstrual house
Woven mats hanging in the rafters
Rafters overlaid with woven materials
Teresa, apprentice anthropologist.
Photographing inside the the women's house.
A menstruating woman enters the house at the center door in the front, and can only move around the place outside along a selected path. Once she stops menstruating, she can leave the house from a side door. When she needs to go out to the lagoon, there is a specific back door she can use. This house is also used for women who have just given birth. In Yap proper, there is a period in which a woman who has just given birth must remain in seclusion --- about 3 months. In Fais, I am not sure if there is such a period, although once a woman has birthed, she stays in the center part of the menstrual house and uses the central door in the back of the house to go to the lagoon; the menstruating women do not use this door.
Obviously men are not allowed in this place, although I suspect they participated in its construction.
Men and boys gathered away from the center
At the celebration we had a ton of food for lunch --- crab, chicken, various kinds of fish, hot dogs, taro, sweet potatos, and coconuts. They wanted to know if Teresa and I were going to share, as there was plenty of food for us to have one basket of food each! Even between the two of us, we could not make a dent in the basket. And, us invited, important guests got special gifts --- me, I got a lava-lava. Fais is known for its weaving, and this was one of their products. Lava-lavas are the skirts Outer Island women wear.
Before the dancing started for the celebration on the completion of the menstrual hut, I wandered around and spotted this canoe on the beach. It was in the process of being rebuilt. This is a complicated task, which requires that each part of the canoe be removed and inspected for soundness and integrity, and if need be replaced. I am also told that this is a time-consuming task, in that one must wait for bindings to shrink and tighten and so on. Not just anyone can do this work either; it requires special craftsmen. Not all navigators possess this skill, but then neither are all canoe builders expert navigators.
At about the same time, someone passed along the road with a shark in a wheelbarrow. Sharks are the highest-ranking food here because it is so difficult to catch them --- they put up a fight, they are aggressive when injured, and they attack you. To catch a shark means you are brave. I could not find out if catching a shark meant an increase in rank or perhaps a tattoo in the days before German time. Elsewhere, such acts of bravery would have been rewarded in some fashion, usually related to a change (elevation) in status.
And, to top it all off, there was a dance presented for the ceremony. It was a slow dance, all women of various ages. The chant and movements had the rhythm of the sea --- it was mesmerizing.
The dancers' costumes. The over-skirts/aprons/or whatever you want to call them are made of palm leaves, but look closely --- they have separated the leaf from the main stem inside the leaf, so the leaves hang down from their waists and the stems stand out. It almost reminds me of a bustle or some such. It is really a wonderful costume.
The chief's house remains: on our tour of the island, we came across an area with tall limestone pillars and graves. When I asked what it was, he said it was the high chief's burial place and that the pillars are the remains of a house. The supports held up the main supports for the ceiling (the joists?) while the floor was on the ground, covered in small corals --- construction similar to what is seen in the menstrual hut.
Remains of the Chief's house
The path to the airstrip
Fais airport --- shade for those who wait
The difference in vegetation here is quite dramatic. If you look carefully at the photograph from the air you can see the extent of the scar.
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