Culture of the Micronesians

The Micronesians, like the Polynesians, speak languages belonging to the Malayo-Polynesian family. The languages are more diversified than in Polynesia, undoubtedly as a result of longer settlement or of settlement by different people.

This is the area of the fast, ocean-going, sailing canoes that amazed the Spanish discoverers. Through the invention of a triangular sail, which can be quickly shifted from one end of the canoe to the other, the balancing outrigger-float can be kept always to windward. Because the Polynesians lacked this invention, they could fare forth on the ocean in safety only by resorting to the double canoe, far slower and less maneuverable than a single outrigger canoe. The double canoe, however, had great carrying capacity.

The smallness of the Micronesian islands and the fact that most of them are coral atolls have restricted their plant food. The coconut, pandanus, and breadfruit are the staples in the low islands, but a limited amount of taro is grown. Fish supplied all the protein food until the introduction of the pig and the fowl. These were present in some of the western islands before the advent of the Europeans. Of great help in the diet is the drinking of coconut toddy, the sugary sap from the coconut blossom. In the western islands the areca nut is chewed with betel leaf. The Ponapeans of the East Carolines knew the Polynesian kava drink. Southwest of Ponape lie two small atolls, Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro, inhabited by people whose physical type, language, and culture are Polynesian. This is the farthest west Polynesians have been found.

Loom weaving, using fibers of the banana and the hibiscus plants, diffused from Indonesia as far east as Kusaie. From there eastward, mat or fringed-leaf kilts took the place of woven kilts.

Micronesians pierced their ears and extended the ear lobes by inserting large plugs in the piercings. From their ears they hung shell ornaments. Into their hair they thrust elaborate wooden combs. Around their necks they placed necklaces of coconut rings, and about the waist belts of shell beads. Delicate tattooing covered the body.

As in Polynesia the people were divided into nobles and commoners. The chiefs were members of high-ranking matrilineal clans. The clans were graded according to their age or the number of men and amount of land they owned. At the most, chiefs extended their power over not more than a few small islands or several districts of a large island.

In every village were clan houses for the men and menstrual houses for the women. The men's clubhouses in the west were large and ornamented with carvings and paintings. About these houses at Yap were set great disks of limestone that served as money. They were pierced in the center with a hole and, except for size, resembled the Melanesian individual disks of shell money. Wealth, not descent from the god, bolstered prestige in Micronesia.

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