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Prehistoric fishing in Palau, Micronesia: evidence from the Northern Rock Islands.


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. 2001; Allen 2002).

Environmental setting

Palau is located approximately 7[degrees] north of the equator in the Western Caroline Islands of Micronesia about 600 km equidistant from the Philippines to the west and New Guinea to the south (Figure 1). The archipelago is comprised of several hundred islands, most of which are remnants of tectonically uplifted coral reef and locally referred to as the "Rock Islands". The volcanic islands of Palau (e.g. Babeldaob, Arakebesang, and much of Koror and Malakal), consist of rolling hills with several higher peaks. Babeldaob has numerous small, steep, and narrow valley systems with coastal plains whereas the smaller volcanic islands are characterized by a single central ridge.


In contrast, the Rock Islands have poorly developed soils and no surface drainage systems. These islands are generally 50-100 m in height, although some can reach 200 m or more. Subaerial weathering caused by freshwater solution on the emergent limestone islands has created jagged pit and pinnacle (karst) topography, solution fissures, sink holes, and caves with speleothems. The lower reef islands of Angaur, Peleliu, and some of those along the western reef (e.g. Ngemelis), consist partly of the "Peleliu Limestone" formation. These are islands of slightly less well consolidated reef formations than those of the Rock Islands, and are usually low platform with less dramatic topography.

The relatively close proximity of the Palauan archipelago to mainland Southeast Asia, in conjunction with its geological history and local current and wind patterns, has created one of the most ecologically diverse regions of the Pacific (Irwin 1992:11; Rapaport 1999). A variety of habitat types exist including patch, fringing, and barrier reefs, reef walls, mud flats, sand and rubble flats, sea grass flats, mangrove forests, estuaries, freshwater streams, marine and freshwater lakes, and the uplifted limestone Rock Islands (Johannes 1981; Donaldson 2002:242). As a result, the archipelago has an impoverished terrestrial fauna, but roughly 1,400 to 1,500 species of fish (Myers 1999), over 100 species of algae and sea grasses (Randall et al. 1978: 36), at least 400 species of coral (O' Neill and Faulkner 1978:137), and scores of marine mollusks (Carucci 1992; Fitzpatrick 2003b). In addition there are numerous species of jellyfish, sea fans, sea anemones, echinoderms (e.g. sea urchins, sea cucumbers), arthropods (e.g. crabs, shrimps, lobsters), poriferans (sponges) and populations of larger sea animals such as hawksbill and green turtles, dugongs, and saltwater crocodiles, to name a few.

Archaeological research

An increase in archaeological research during the past decade has greatly expanded our understanding of Palau's prehistory. The majority of work has focused on the larger islands of Babeldaob, Peleliu, and Angaur (e.g. Osborne 1966, 1979; Snyder 1989; Lucking and Parmentier 1990; Liston et al. 1998a, 1998b, 1998c; Wickler et al. 1998; Clark and Wright 2003; Phear et al. 2003), while the smaller and more widely scattered limestone Rock Islands have received less attention (but see Masse 1989; Carucci 1992; Fitzpatrick 2001, 2002a, 2002b, 2003a, 2003b; Fitzpatrick and Boyle 2003; Fitzpatrick et al. 2003; Clark and Wright 2003; Clark 2004). This is in part, due to a surge in infrastructure development and contract archaeology on Babeldaob that started in the late 1990s (Liston et al. 1998a, 1998b, 1998 c; Wickler 2001; Wickler et al. 1998) and a general misconception that the larger volcanic islands hold the best, if not the only evidence for early and long-term settlement and site use (Wickler 2001).

Recent fieldwork on both the volcanic and limestone islands demonstrates that Palau was probably settled between 3300-3000 BP (Fitzpatrick 2003c; Clark and Wright 2003; Phear et al. 2003), and perhaps earlier according to paleoenvironmental evidence (Athens and Ward 1999, 2002). However, very few sites in the region have yielded data on early periods of settlement with abundant faunal refuse, diverse artifactual assemblages, and other important indicators of long-term occupation. Investigations on Orrak Island indicate that the Chelechol ra Orrak site, and perhaps others recently surveyed on this and nearby limestone islands, have the potential to fill in many gaps in Palau's prehistory, including the contribution of marine foods to the diets of early inhabitants (Fitzpatrick 2003b).

Ethnographic accounts and historical records throughout Oceania have proven to be a valuable source of information in determining the food procurement strategies of prehistoric Pacific Islanders. Few attempts have been made in Palau, however, to record traditional fishing techniques with one exception. Johannes (1981), a trained fisheries biologist, worked with fishermen in Palau in the mid-1970s and documented how Palauans captured marine resources. His interviews with over 35 individuals and a number of other groups in Palau demonstrated that local fisherman were highly adept at making and implementing various fishing technologies, many of which are traditionally known in the Pacific including spears, "leaf sweeps", gorges, weirs, barrier nets, and fish traps (Johannes 1981:10-31). Although it is difficult to determine whether certain fish taxa in prehistoric times were caught using these or other methods, they do suggest that modern Palauans were extremely knowledgeable about various fishing techniques, fish behavior, and seasonal cycles that probably extend deep into antiquity.

Chelechol ra Orrak

The Chelechol ra Orrak ("beach of Orrak") site is located along the western edge of Orrak Island among a small cluster of Rock Islands about 1 km east of Babeldaob's southeastern tip (Figure 2). The island is connected to Babeldaob by a prehistoric causeway constructed of coral rubble now covered in mangrove vegetation. The site was originally identified as a location where Yapese islanders quarried their famous stone money (Blaiyok 1993) and consists of several small caves, rockshelters, and overhangs that stretch for about 200 meters just beyond the shoreline (see de Beauclair 1963; Gillilland 1975; Fitzpatrick 2001, 2003a for descriptions of stone money and regional exchange relationships). Four test units were opened in 2000 in the largest rockshelter (2) (two--1.0 x 1.0 m [units 1 and 2]; two--0.5 x 1.0 m [units 3 and 4 lie adjacent to one another]), three of which were excavated to 90 cmbs or more (units 1, 3, and 4). Three other 1.0 x 1.0 m units were excavated in 2002 (E2S1, E2S2, E3S1), but analysis for these is still on-going.


Soils in the upper 50 cm were typically a mixture of calcareous sand and silty loam. A diverse faunal assemblage was recovered including crustacea, echinoderms, elasmobranchs, turtle, roughly a hundred different shellfish taxa, and a wide variety of teleost fishes. Soils below 50 cm were mostly calcareous sand deposits intermixed with spotty loam inclusions and a decrease in faunal remains. Human remains were discovered in all test units, usually below 50 cm (Fitzpatrick 2003c; Nelson and Fitzpatrick in press). Artifacts recovered include adzes made from stone and Tridacna shell, pottery, glass beads, pearl shell (Pinctada margaritifera) scraper/grater tools (Fitzpatrick and Boyle 2003), shell ornaments (including Trochus sp. rings and Conus shell beads and pendants), a drilled turtle plastron fragment, and a bone needle. It is important to note that no definitive prehistoric fishing gear (e.g. fishhooks, lures) was recovered in the 2000 or 2002 excavations with the possible exception of some cordage. This cordage, found in the uppermost strata of units adjacent to Test Unit 1, may have been part of fishing line or nets and probably dates to within the last few hundred years or so. Further analysis of the cordage is underway to determine its material type, function, and method of production.

A suite of 28 radiocarbon dates (25 AMS and three conventional) from Chelechol ra Orrak indicate that the burials are from between 2,000 to 3,000 years old, and possibly earlier, with subsequent periods of site use taking place up until the modern era (Fitzpatrick 2002a, 2003c). The fishbone in this study were collected from stratified deposits that ranged in age from about 1,700 years to the present.

One phenomenon that occurs at Yapese stone money quarry sites that affects the distribution of cultural remains (especially in smaller caves and rockshelters) is the mixing of deposits in the top 30-40 cm as a result of soil and lithic debris being moved during habitation and/or engineering activities. This has resulted in sloped profiles at both Omis Cave (Fitzpatrick 2001) and Chelechol ra Orrak (Figure 3), and probably led to the intermixing of some of the assemblage.


The effect of this limited admixing of soil is clearly evident at Chelechol ra Orrak in Layer 4 where the ages (in cal. BP) range from 1290-720 (TU1), 2740 to 0 (TU2), 1710-1540 (TU4), and 930-790 (E2/S1; see Table 1). The broad age range for this layer is partly a result of a historic date from an intrusive hearth feature and an early one from an isolated human bone fragment. But even if these dates are removed, this still leaves a range of about 500 years for Layer 4 which statistically overlaps with some of the dates from Layers 5 and 6. Because of Yapese quarrying activities this is not surprising since these layers lie adjacent to one another (see TU1 in Figure 3).

Despite the overlapping ages for these layers, the contexts of the dates from Test Unit 2, a fishbone specimen dating to 1870-1770 cal BP, and several others in lower deposits at the site dating to around or earlier than 2000 cal BP, indicate that Layer 4 is probably between 1700-1600 BP in age considering that several other dates at the site (including those from charcoal, shell, and bone), appear to be reliable (Fitzpatrick 2002b, 2003c; also see Table 1). It should be noted that small amounts of fishbone were also found in association with human remains in deeper strata. Although it is unclear whether these are directly related to the earliest period of human activity, their presence in all stratigraphic deposits, many of which appear undisturbed, suggests that fishing in Palau has a greater antiquity than indicated by our preliminary analysis from the uppermost strata. Further radiocarbon dating and continued analysis of archaeofish remains from these test units and others excavated in 2002 should help to even better refine the site's chronology and pattern of fish predation by prehistoric Palauans.


All taxa in this study were identified by Kataoka using comparative collections of Pacific Ocean fish taxa at Kansai Gaidai University and the Nara Cultural Properties Research Institute in Japan. The former collection consisted of 40 individuals from 35 species in 25 genera and 22 families; the latter consisted of 809 individuals from 350 species in 224 genera and 107 families.

Because of the site's limestone environment and its protected location, the preservation of faunal remains was excellent and provided a relatively large sample from which to identify particular elements. The following anatomical elements were primarily used for identification: the premaxilla, dentary, maxilla, articular, and quadrate. Special bones diagnostic to specific fishes such as the pharyngeal clusters of parrotfish and wrasse, bucklers on the caudal peduncle of surgeonfish and unicornfish, and the first dorsal spines of triggerfish were also used for identification (Kataoka 1995, 1996). It must be noted, however, that identifications from bones are not always satisfactory at the species level due to a lack of sufficient comparative specimens and anatomical similarities among tropical fish species in the Pacific. Because of this difficulty, fish remains were identified to the family level (see Leach 1986; Leach and Boocock 1993; Allen 2002:206). The number of identified specimens (NISP) and minimum number of individuals (MNI) of fish taxa were calculated for comparison with Pacific faunal collections (Leach et al. 1988; Masse 1989; Kataoka 1996) following standards applied by other archaeologists (Leach 1986; Allen 1992; Nagaoka 1994; Butler 1998, 2001). These methods can be problematic (Grayson 1984), but used together, they offer an opportunity to address the relative importance of certain taxa rather than a simple value of absence or presence (see Rick et al. 2001).

Because of the great quantity of fish bone recovered from Chelechol ra Orrak and the time needed to fully clean and separate major elements, samples were taken from Test Units 1 (Layers 2 and 6) and 2 (Layer 4). These samples were chosen because they came from units that had the highest concentration of fish and other faunal remains found at the site. The strata that produced these remains also yielded the greatest quantities of faunal material relative to each respective unit. These numbers significantly decreased below Layer 6 in Test Unit 1 and Layer 4 in Test Unit 2 coinciding with the discovery of human skeletal remains, although fish and other fauna continued to be found in deeper deposits. For these reasons, we believe that these strata provide a representative sample of the types of fish procured by peoples living at the site during roughly the last two millennia.

All excavated materials were recovered from the site by wet screening over 1/8-inch (3.2mm) mesh to ensure recovery of smaller site constituents. Fish bone was initially cleaned and separated by many of the major elements in the field laboratory during the 2000 field project. Further sorting was conducted upon arrival back at the University of Oregon and by Kataoka in Japan. The total sample analyzed weighed 1.24 kg, representing 36% of the 3.34 kg collected in excavation. A total of 8,793 fish bones were analyzed from the samples in Test Units 1 and 2, representing three Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish) families and 19 Osteichithyes (boney fish) families. These are discussed below (see Table 2).


Test Unit 1

A total of 1,029 fish bones were collected from the samples in Test Unit 1. Layer 2 (0.03 [m.sup.3] soil volume) had 264 bones and 765 were found in Layer 6 (0.12 [m.sup.3] soil volume). A large number of bones were undiagnostic spines of the axial skeleton (including fins; n=212). The two most common families in Test Unit 1 as measured by MNI were parrotfish (22.2%) and sea bass (13.0%), with the others occurring in minor proportions ([greater than or equal to] 3 MNI). Relative to the overall assemblage analyzed, Test Unit 1 comprised 11.7% of the total weight of fish remains, 15.8% of the NISR and 29.5% of the MNI (Table 2).

Test Unit 2

A total of 7,764 fish bones were collected from Layer 4 in Test Unit 2 (0.13 [m.sup.3] soil volume). Of the identifiable elements, spines (11.3%) and vertebrae (8.9%) dominate the assemblage; 57% was classified as "other" (i.e. undiagnostic bones of the cranium and lateral facial bones). Overall, this sample represented 88% of the total fish bone assemblage weight analyzed, 84.1% of the NISP, and 70.5% of the MNI. Similar to Test Unit 1, parrotfish (40.3%) and sea bass (10.9%) were the most abundant taxa as measured by MNI, but also included a significant number of wrasse (9.3%) and emperors (7.0%; Table 2).


Analysis of fish bone from Chelechol ra Orrak reveals that taxa were procured from a wide variety of marine environments including seaward reef flats, lagoonal patch reefs, lagoonal sand flats, sea walls and surge channels, and supralittoral or littoral pools (see Masse [1989:117-124] and Johannes [1981] for a description of major reef ecosystems in Palau). The most common taxa from Chelechol ra Orrak were captured from lagoonal sand flats (parrotfish) or sea walls and surge channels (sea basses, some parrotfish). This is not surprising given that Orrak Island is surrounded by sand flats leading out to shallow coral reefs on nearly all sides and bordered at the south by the main barrier reef system which drops significantly in depth. This environment is similar to that of Ngemelis located about 20 km away in the southern Rock Islands where Masse (1989) conducted much of his fieldwork. Thus, we might expect that fish populations would be comparable between these two locations.

Modern biological surveys of fish populations in the Palauan archipelago indicate that the Rock Islands in general have a lower species richness and diversity than high island localities such as Koror and Babeldoab (Donaldson 2002). Although it is also unclear whether modern surveys accurately reflect fish populations in the past, they do provide comparative data with which to examine possible differences in taxa through time in similar environmental contexts.

Donaldson (2002:245) demonstrated that the species richness and diversity of western and eastern Babeldaob was fairly similar and slightly higher than that of the Koror Rock Islands. Differences in richness and diversity were never directly compared between northern and southern rock island localities, but Peleliu (near Ngemelis), had a 16% higher level of species richness over Babeldaob as a whole with a similar level of species diversity (measured using the Shannon Index of Diversity; see Donaldson 2002:243) and was 19% higher in species richness than the Koror Rock Islands. Based on these recent biological survey results there appears to be an appreciable difference in modern fish populations between islands in the north and south of the archipelago. It is possible, given Orrak's proximity to Babeldaob, that the southeastern portion of the big island (and adjacent Rock Islands), could also have measurable differences in species diversity, but this is difficult to determine on an island by island basis based on current evidence. Overall, the general environments of Ngemelis and Orrak seem similar enough to make a general comparison between archaeofish assemblages, although it is important to note that data collected from modern fish surveys suggest that taxonomic richness and diversity may perhaps vary between these locations by 15-20%.

Masse (1989:492) modeled changes in fish family composition from AD 650 to the early I900s in Palau which included sites in Babeldaob, but these latter samples were comparatively small. By far the most common family found (MNI) at archaeological sites during Masse's (1989) field research was parrotfish followed by sea breams, sea basses, wrasses, and emperors. Although there were slight differences in the relative numbers of each family during different time periods (AD 650-900, AD 1200-1450, AD 1600-1914), these five families consistently comprised at least 75% of the total fish remains through each consecutive period. The remaining 25% or so consisted of leatherjackets, snappers, squirrelfishes, porcupinefishes, and a small number of other taxa.

These findings were comparable to the results at Uchularois Cave on Ngemelis which revealed extensive fish remains in the same relative percentages (Masse 1989: 682-685) and included those genera found in Osborne's (1979:343-347) excavations. Results from this site indicated that parrotfish (42.3%), sea breams (11.6%), wrasses (8.3%), leatherjackets (7.5%), and sea basses (4.3%) were the most abundant, comprising 74% of the overall site assemblage (MNI). The only exception compared to these Palauan fish assemblages overall was that emperors were less frequent and leatherjackets more so.

These results are marginally different to what was found on Orrak Island (Figure 4). The five most common taxa (MNI) found at Chelechol ra Orrak were parrotfish (35.2%), sea basses (11.5%), wrasses (7.7%), emperors (7.7%), and snappers (4.9%) which equaled 66.8% of the total assemblage (Figure 5). The biggest difference is that leatherjackets (4.4%) and sea breams (1.1%) are not well accounted for on Orrak and sea basses are more prominent (11.5% versus 4.3%). Snappers also appear to have been slightly more important at Chelechol ra Orrak than at Uchularois Cave where they account for 4.9% versus 3.9% of the assemblage.


We also made chronological comparisons between fish assemblages at Chelechol ra Orrak and Uchularois Cave (Masse 1989) using the six most common taxa found in each site's assemblage (leatherjackets, parrotfish, sea basses, sea breams, snappers, and wrasses). Test Unit 1 at Orrak is roughly contemporaneous with Uchularois Cave, ranging AD 800-1900 and AD 650-1900, respectively. Based on MNI, the six most common archaeofish taxa comprise 50.0% of the assemblage found in Test Unit 1 and 77.9% in Uchularois Cave. When these are compared, there are significant differences in the quantity of taxa found (Figure 4). In general, Uchularois Cave has greater percentages of every taxa except for sea basses (13.0% versus 4.3%) and snappers (7.4% versus 3.9%).

When the Uchularois Cave assemblage is compared to Test Unit 2 at Chelechol ra Orrak (Figure 6) which is dated slightly earlier (ca. AD 300-400), there are also greater numbers of sea basses at Orrak (10.9% versus 4.3%) and slightly more wrasses (9.3% versus 8.3%). Snappers occur in the same relative abundance (3.9%) at both sites, and sea breams, parrotfish, and leatherjackets are more frequent at Uchularois Cave (the latter two of which are somewhat close in frequency).


Using our sample, can we determine if any long-term changes were occurring in fish procurement at Chelechol ra Orrak? When 13 of the taxa are compared between Test Units 1 and 2, for example, there are some significant differences (Figure 7). The earlier Test Unit 2 assemblage has 1.6 times the number of sea breams (1.6% versus 0.0%), 2.5 times the number of wrasses (9.3% versus 3.7%), 1.8 times the number of parrotfish (40.3% versus 22.2%), and 1.3 times the number of leatherjackets (4.7% versus 3.7%). Sea basses, emperors, and snappers are more common in Test Unit 1, but the two former are only slightly higher (13.0% versus 10.9% and 9.3% versus 6.9%, respectively). Overall, when these 13 taxa are compared between test units, 10 (77%) are found in greater abundance (MNI) in Test Unit 2 than Test Unit 1.


It is also interesting to note that the number of taxa decrease over time. In Test Unit 1, Layer 2 has nine taxa, Layer 6 has 14 taxa, and Test Unit 2 has 19 taxa. Test Unit 1, Layer 6 has nine families that are not found in Layer 2, several of which are fairly common (e.g. sea bass, wrasse, leatherjackets); the opposite shows only four families unique to Layer 2 (e.g. rays, goatfish). This implies that the species richness was greater in earlier deposits at the site.

To establish a comparison of fish density per unit volume between different strata, we divided MNI by the amount of soil excavated (Figure 8). The results indicate that: 1) there was a higher density of fish remains in Test Unit 2 than Test Unit 1; and 2) earlier deposits overall are more taxonomically rich than later deposits. How can the trends in fish species richness and procurement between dated contexts at Chelechol ra Orrak be explained?


In general, the larger the assemblage and soil amount excavated from each layer at the site, the greater the species richness. This suggests that the data follow a similar pattern as other faunal assemblages where there is a strong correlation between sample size and sample richness (Grayson 1984:132). If this were true, it would be difficult to argue that fishing of certain species decreased over time based on the selected sample, especially in terms of fishbone quantity. However, although the number of fishbone recovered from TU1 is smaller than TU2 (1,029 versus 7,764), TU1 actually has a greater soil volume (.15 [m.sup.3] versus. 13 [m.sup.3]). And despite TU1 having only 11.7% of the number of bones analyzed in this study, has nearly 30% of the identified MNI for the site as a whole. So, although TU2 has a greater species richness than TU1 (which we would expect given the higher number of bones analyzed from this unit), it does not suggest that decreasing species richness through time is due to inadequate sampling of soil volume (but, may still be reflective of sample size).

We must also consider the distribution of fish remains throughout the site. It is possible that the prehistoric inhabitants of Chelechol ra Orrak simply discarded most of their food refuse in and around TU2. However, these units are less than two meters apart and such a large difference in fishbone accumulation between the two units is probably not best explained by discard patterns. Another explanation may be that the differences observed in number of taxa is a result of different fish predation behaviors by different cultural groups--Palauans who occupied the site during earlier periods, and the Yapese who lived there later in time while quarrying stone money (Fitzpatrick 2003a). If these groups had different food preferences or if the Yapese were restricted from capturing certain fish taxa, this might help explain why the number of taxa decreased during the last few hundred years. There is no evidence to suggest, however, that the Yapese were quarrying stone money earlier than 500-600 years ago. A radiocarbon date from Layer 6 in TU1 (1260-1150 cal BP) is earlier than probable Yapese occupation. Therefore, the trend of fish species richness decreasing through time does not appear to be related to culturally distinct or restricted subsistence activities.

We also recognize that there may be biases in the preservation and recovery of certain elements used for identification even within the same site. Differential survival rates of fishbone have been postulated by researchers in the Pacific (Leach and Ward 1981; Butler 1988), but as Fraser (2001:29) states, it may be prudent to wait until further research is done on the topic before suggesting that differential survival is "a possible reason for unusual balances in the abundance of different species or anatomy". Masse (1989:445-466) also discussed this issue in Palau noting that parrotfish pharyngeal clusters included in his study were about two times as "durable" as premaxillae, five times as "durable" as quadrates, articulars, and maxillae, and were likely to preserve better than any of the elements from most other fish families (Masse 1989:456). This may suggest that parrotfish are overrepresented in ours and other assemblages, but it is somewhat difficult to determine butchering techniques that were used in the past. We agree with Masse (1989:461) that there is probably differential preservation of some elements within individual taxa and that some fish are more susceptible to decomposition and other taphonomic processes even in carbonate environments. This has probably led to some fish families being underestimated or missing altogether. One example is rabbitfish which are known ethnographically to be important and still extremely popular with present day Palauans (Johannes 1981:11), but rarely found in archaeological deposits (Masse 1989: 682-704). However, parrotfish and wrasse both have elements that preserve well and Figure 7 demonstrates that meaningful comparisons can be made between these and other taxa within the same site and between sites in Palau. In general, we would argue that the similar environmental contexts, preservation of taxa, and sampling procedures from the southern and northern Rock Islands do make it possible to compare archaeofish assemblages between these locales. However, further research on modern fish populations and archaeological sites throughout the Rock Islands would certainly help to improve the resolution of data.


Analysis of fish bone from Chelechol ra Orrak indicates that peoples living at the site were capturing fish primarily from near shore and lagoonal habitats (e.g. parrotfish, leatherjackets, surgeonfish, moray eels). Parrotfish were the most prevalent taxa found along with sea basses, snappers, and wrasses. The data loosely correspond with Masse's (1989) observations in the southern Rock Islands where parrotfish, sea breams, sea basses, wrasses, and emperors were the taxa most commonly found. Similar to what Johannes (1981) reported for modern Palauan populations, prehistoric peoples probably used a variety of technologies for capturing these fish including canoes, nets, hook-and-line, and spears or harpoons. As Leach et al. (1988:35) note, however, most fish can be caught with nets and determining whether certain taxa were captured using a particular technique is somewhat difficult. This is especially problematic considering that no identifiable fishhooks, lures, or other fishing technologies have yet been recovered during excavations at Chelechol ra Orrak.

Our data also seem to indicate that fishing was more intensive during earlier periods around AD 300-400 and diminished over time, similar to what other Pacific archaeologists have reported (Allen et al. 2001; Allen 2002). Twice as many taxa were found in the earliest deposit (n=19) versus the later one (n=9). Because the samples are relatively small, further testing is needed to confirm or deny this observation, especially given that there is often a correlation between sample size and sample richness.

These data are somewhat difficult to compare with Masse's (1989), who concentrated on fish remains dating to AD 650 and younger. From AD 650-1200, which Masse (1989:68-69) termed the "Resource Intensification Period" (characterized by an intensification of subsistence resources and exploitation of diversified environments), he suggested that there was overharvesting of fish. He performed statistical analyses on the size of inferior pharyngeal clusters of parrotfish and large-eyed bream premaxillae (Masse 1989:498-515) to test this hypothesis. Although he admitted his results were inconclusive and statistically insignificant, he nonetheless suggested that his measurement data reflected a true reduction in fish size during this time. This hypothesis has not been tested for the Chelechol ra Orrak assemblage, but it appears that a number of taxa including sea breams, wrasses, parrotfish, and leatherjackets were captured in more frequent numbers in earlier deposits and decreased later in time.

Chondrichthyes and Osteichithyes bones that we analyzed from Chelechol ra Orrak provide quantitative evidence for Palauans exploiting fish resources for a period of at least 1,700 years, a few hundred years earlier than what has been documented elsewhere in the archipelago. It is likely that as excavation and analysis continues at Chelechol ra Orrak and other sites in the Rock Islands, that we will find evidence that Palauan fishing is contemporaneous with the earliest period of settlement dating back to ca. 3000-3300 BE Fishbone found in the earliest dated strata at the site suggest that this may be the case.

Although our research complements Masse's (1989) earlier findings in the southern Rock Islands, a paucity of studies in other parts of western Micronesia (i.e. Yap, Guam, Marianas) prevent a better regional comparison. One of the only other fish assemblages recovered from archaeological deposits in western Micronesia is at the Mochong site in Rota (Marianas) that date from ca. 500 BC-AD 1500 (2450-540 BP; see Leach et aL 1988). They report 26 discrete taxa (based on family, excluding a general category of teteostomi), 10 of which are found on Orrak Island. One of the most interesting finds was Marlin/Swordfish (Istiophoridae/Xiphiidae), which suggested that this and a number of other fast swimming pelagic fish were probably targeted by early Chamorros using a variety of different technologies such as composite lures (Leach et al. 1988:54). Unfortunately, a lack of fishing tools found in these and other archaeological deposits has hampered our understanding of the particular capturing techniques used by peoples in the region (although see Craib [1986:216-219] for a description of lures in the Marianas). Nonetheless, it is clear that fishing was an important part of the subsistence strategy practiced by early peoples in Palau and other parts of western Micronesia.

The question remains, however, as to why certain fish species were preferred over others and why these changes occurred through time. Are these changes a result of technological innovations, cultural practices, fluctuating environmental conditions, demographic movements, or a combination of these or other variables? One factor to consider is that recent archaeological work in Palau indicates that people began to abandon large terrace complexes in Babeldaob and Koror around AD 1000-1200 and shifted to centralized villages with stone architecture around AD 1250-1450 (Wickler 2002a, 2002b). These traditional villages were primarily located on lower hill slopes above the coastal plains which were suitable for constructing diked wetland fields for planting taro, the major subsistence crop (Wickler 2002a:42). Is it possible that marine resource overharvesting occurred as Masse (1989) suggested which led to changes in settlement patterns around this time? Or could a focus on more intensive taro production in and around consolidated villages have led to a decrease in other food producing techniques such as fishing? Some Pacific researchers have suggested that subsistence strategies changed over time from an early focus on marine resources to terrestrial plants and animals either as a result of overharvesting or an increasing population that required higher caloric productivity (Kirch 1973; Allen 1992). These are difficult questions to answer given the paucity of research on these topics in Palau, but will be important to pursue in future investigations on both the larger volcanic and smaller limestone islands in the archipelago.

In general, fish remains found in these and future excavations should provide better opportunities to examine possible cultural differences in fishing strategies, environmental exploitation, overharvesting, and culturally or temporally distinctive food preferences between and within island groups in Micronesia. As more attention is diverted to archaeologically examining faunal remains, especially in the limestone Rock Islands which have unusually exceptional preservation, it is likely that we will push back even further the antiquity of Palauan fishing and the role these important resources had in the diets of early Micronesian peoples. In addition, the continued and future analysis of archaeofauna from Orrak and other islands in Palau will provide a wealth of opportunities to apply a variety of optimal foraging or prey choice models (Butler 2001; Nagaoka 2001) to examine diet breadth, resource depression, and subsistence change, and the varying taphonomic processes that occur at archaeological sites in Micronesia.
Figure 5: Relative abundance (% MNI) of fish families from Test
Units 1 (Layers 2 and 6) and 2 (Layer 4) at Chelechol ra Orrak
in order of increasing frequency.

Jacks                      0.05
Grunts                     0.05
Mullets                    0.05
Rabbitfishes               0.05
Needlefishes               1.1
Porcupinefishes            1.1
Sharks and Rays            1.1
Squirrelfishes             1.1
Sea Breams                 1.1
Sharks                     1.6
Boxfishes                  1.6
Rays                       1.6
Scorpionfishes             1.6
Surgeonfishes              2.7
Goatfishes                 2.7
Moray Eels                 2.7
Leatherjackets             3.8
Snappers                   4.9
Unidentified               7.1
Wrasses                    7.7
Emperors                   7.7
Sea Basses                11.5
Parrotfishes              35.2

Note: Table made from bar graph.

Table 1: Calibrated radiocarbon dates from Chelechol ra Orrak
(1 sigma; AA = Arizona AMS; OS = Woods Hole; GX = Geochron
Laboratories; C = charcoal; B = bone, S = shell; F = fishbone).
All samples calibrated using CALIB 4.3.

Lab No.     Type   species            Unit    Layer    Level

AA-43047    C      --                 1       2        0-20
AA-43051    S      Anadara sp.        1       4        20-30
AA-43048    C      --                 1       4        30-40
AA-43049    C      --                 1       6        40-50
AA-43052    S      Conus litteratus   1       7        60-70
AA-43053    B      human              1       8        80-90
OS-34232    C      --                 1       8       100-110
AA-45890    B      human              1       8       90-110
AA-43054    B      human              1       9        80-90
AA-40957    B      human              1       9       90-100
AA-43050    F      --                 1       9       100-110
OS-33908    S      Pinctada sp.       1       9       90-110
AA-43055    C      --                 2       1        10-20
AA-43056    C      --                 2       4        20-30
AA-43058    B      human              2       4        30-40
AA-43057    S      Conus pulicarius   2       5        40-50
AA-43059    C      --                 3       1        0-10
AA-43060    S      Mactra sp.         3       10       60-70
AA-43064    C      --                 4       4        20-30
AA-43065    S      Cardiidae          4       4        30-40
AA-43063    B      human              4       10       60-70
AA-43062    B      human              4       10       70-80
AA-43061    B      human              4       10       80-90
AA-45891    B      human              4       10       70-90
OS-35163    C      --                 4       10       80-90
GX-30426    C      --                 E2S1    1        0-20
GX-30427    C      --                 E2S1    4        40-50
GX-30428    C      --                 E3S1    5A       30-40

            [sup.12]C              measured
Lab No.       ratio             [sup.14]C age          cal BP

AA-43047      -26.5            96 [+ or -] 33           historic
AA-43051       1.57          1245 [+ or -] 54       870 (780)720
AA-43048      -25.4          1306 [+ or -] 36   1290 (1260) 1180
AA-43049      -25.8          1253 [+ or -] 36   1260 (1210) 1150
AA-43052       3.02          2881 [+ or -] 43    2720 (2700)2650
AA-43053      -17.1         3860 [+ or -] 360    4530(4030) 3570
OS-34232      -25.9          2770 [+ or -] 30   2920 (2850) 2790
AA-45890      -15.4          2641 [+ or -] 49    2700 (2500)2450
AA-43054      -15.4          2028 [+ or -] 44   1860 (1810) 1720
AA-40957      -15.7          2678 [+ or -] 41   2720 (2700) 2500
AA-43050      -12.6          2220 [+ or -] 43   1870 (1820) 1770
OS-33908       0.36          2140 [+ or -] 50    1800(1720) 1680
AA-43055      -27.1           916 [+ or -] 36      910 (830) 760
AA-43056      -26.5           122 [+ or -] 34           historic
AA-43058      -15.3          2735 [+ or -] 48   2740 (2720) 2700
AA-43057       2.51          2128 [+ or -] 42    1770 (1700)1670
AA-43059      -26.1                 post bomb           historic
AA-43060       2.11          2737 [+ or -] 46    2490 (2420)2340
AA-43064      -27.1          1692 [+ or -] 40   1690 (1580) 1540
AA-43065       2.70          2084 [+ or -] 54          1710-1590
AA-43063      -15.7          2607 [+ or -] 46    2680(2420) 2360
AA-43062      -16.5          3164 [+ or -] 51    3260 (3200)3090
AA-43061      -16.5          3658 [+ or -] 65    3840(3760) 3680
AA-45891         --          2522 [+ or -] 48    2360 (2350)2330
OS-35163      -25.9          2650 [+ or -] 35    2780 (2760)2750
GX-30426      -26.6     116.41 [+ or -] 0.80%           historic
GX-30427      -26.3           960 [+ or -] 50       930 (920)790
GX-30428      -25.9          1210 [+ or -] 60    1260 (1160)1060

Table 2. Identified fish remains from Chelechol ra Orrak.

                                                       TEST UNIT 1

                                                 Layer 2      Layer 6
                                                   0 BP       1250 BP

Taxon                    Common name            NISP   MNI   NISP   MNI

CHONDRICHTHYES           cartilaginous fishes
Elasmobranchii           sharks and rays         0       0     16     1
Lamiformes               sharks and rays         2       1      3     1
Rajiformes               rays                    3       3      0     0

OSTEICHITHYES            bony fishes
Acanthuridae             surgeonfishes           0       0      2     1
Balistidae               leatherjackets          0       0      2     2
Belonidae                needlefishes            0       0      1     1
Carangidae               jacks                   0       0      0     0
Didontidae               porcupinefishes         0       0      1     1
Haemulidae               grunts                  0       0      1     1
Holocentridae            squirrelfishes          1       1      0     0
Labridae                 wrasses                 0       0      3     2
Lethrinidae              emperors                4       2      7     3
Lutjanidae               snappers                4       2      6     2
Monotaxidae              sea breams              0       0      0     0
Mugilidae                mullets                 1       1      0     0
Mullidae                 goatfishes              3       2      0     0
Muraenidae               moray eels              0       0      3     1
Ostraciidae              boxfishes               3       1      1     1
Scaridae                 parrotfishes           19       5     22     7
Scorpaenidae             scorpionfishes          0       0      0     0
Serranidae               sea basses              0       0     31     7
Siganidae                rabbitfishes            0       0      0     0
unidentified to family                           2       1      5     4

TOTAL                                           42      19    104    35

                             TEST UNIT 2

                              Layer 4        TOTAL
                            1600-2000 BP

Taxon                        NISP   MNI   NISP   MNI

Elasmobranchii                  7     1     23     2
Lamiformes                      2     1      7     3
Rajiformes                      0     0      3     3

Acanthuridae                   58     5     60     6
Balistidae                     10     6     12     8
Belonidae                       1     1      2     2
Carangidae                      3     1      3     1
Didontidae                     71     1     72     2
Haemulidae                      0     0      1     1
Holocentridae                   1     1      2     2
Labridae                       67    12     70    14
Lethrinidae                    54     9     65    14
Lutjanidae                     23     5     33     9
Monotaxidae                     7     2      7     2
Mugilidae                       0     0      1     1
Mullidae                        6     3      9     5
Muraenidae                     10     4     13     5
Ostraciidae                    28     1     32     3
Scaridae                      317    52    358    64
Scorpaenidae                    4     3      4     3
Serranidae                     63    14     94    21
Siganidae                       1     1      1     1
unidentified to family         43     6     50    11

TOTAL                         776   129    922   183


We thank the staff from the Palau Bureau of Arts and Culture (BAC) for their generous help and support over the past several years. A number of students at the University of Oregon aided with the excavation at Chelechol ra Orrak and the cleaning, preliminary sorting, and cataloging of fish remains used in this study. A portion of this work was done in a zooarchaeology course taught by Madonna Moss at the University of Oregon in 2001. Although too numerous to name individually, the help of these students is sincerely appreciated. Kataoka thanks Akira Matsui who aided with using the comparative collections at the Nara Cultural Properties Research Institute in Japan. Support for this research was awarded to Fitzpatrick from the National Science Foundation (SBR-000531), the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Oregon, and a Sasakawa Graduate Fellowship. Funding for AMS radiocarbon dates was enhanced by NSF sponsorship and cooperative agreements with NOSAMS (OCE-9807266) and the University of Arizona AMS Facility. We also greatly appreciate Torben Rick, Jon M. Erlandson, Madonna Moss, J. Peter White, and an anonymous reviewer who provided very useful comments on previous drafts of this paper.

(1) Masse (1989:452-454) himself noted that his recovery techniques were not ideal and led to bias in recovery.

(2) Initially, the Chelechol ra Orrak site was given one site number (B:IR-1:23) by the Palau Bureau of Arts and Culture. Recent investigations suggest that many of the caves, rockshelters, overhangs, and crevices that stretch for hundreds of meters along the northwestern periphery of the island are multi-component, ranging from ca. 3000 BP to the present. As archaeological investigation continues, it may be prudent to assign different site numbers given the differences in cultural association and chronology of occupation.


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