The basic social unit is the family, but each family is part of a welldeveloped clan system governed by chiefs. Except in the islands southwest of the Palaus, descent was through the female line, but under German, Japanese, and missionary influence this custom is breaking down. The modern period also has seen a lessening of the influence of the chiefs, especially among the young men in areas of outside influence. A counter tendency under German and American rule has been a strengthening of the position of the chiefs because of the lack of foreign administrative personnel. It is much easier to relay orders through responsible chiefs, and under American rule an atoll chief has been introduced in places where one did not exist before.
Subsistence agriculture supplies the natives with most of their food. This source is supplemented by the products of the fisheries, some livestock, and, in the areas of greatest outside influence, by importing foods not grown in the islands. The agricultural products are much more varied and numerous on the high islands than on the low islands, where the beach environment limits variety in the plants and the amount of cropland.
On both the high and the low islands the natives grow root and tree crops. The principal tree crops on the high islands are coconuts, breadfruit, papaya, citrus fruit, bananas, and mangoes. The leading root crops are wet and dry taro, arrowroot, yams, sweet potatoes, and cassava. On the low islands there are not as many varieties and the natives are much more dependent on the pandanus, which is eaten on the high islands only when other foods fail.
The distribution of yams and sweet potatoes varies. On Truk and Kusaie the sweet potato is a staple food whereas yams are of little importance. The situation is reversed on Ponape, Yap, and in the Palaus. Ponape is noted for its yams. More than 156 native varieties are known; one is said to attain a length of 9 feet and a diameter of 3 feet.
During the Japanese occupation other crops were introduced such as rice, new types of sugar cane that crowded out the older eating varieties, corn, sorghum, and tobacco. Of these, tobacco is the only one that the natives are continuing to raise in quantity, although they became familiar with the others and will purchase them in the stores when they are available.
Method of agriculture have been little influenced by outside contacts. The digging stick and a long bush knife are still the principal farming tools. There is some desire on the part of the natives for mechanical aid in restoring the wet taro patches that were destroyed during the Second World War, but, on the whole, they are satisfied and successful with the traditional methods.