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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology


The name equatorial islands is a convenient term to cover several groups of small islands scattered between 150° and 160° W. longitudes and between about 6° N. and 11° S. of the equator. They comprise the Line Islands to the east and the Phoenix Islands and Howland and Baker to the west. The Line Islands north of the equator consist of Christmas, Fanning, Washington, Palmyra, and Kingmans Reef, whereas the Line Islands south of the equator comprise Jarvis, Maiden, Starbuck, Caroline, Vostok, and Flint. The Phoenix group consists of eight islands named Sydney, Phoenix, Enderbury, Canton, Hull, Birnie, Gardner, and McKean. They are all atolls and were uninhabited at the time of discovery. They were passed by in the early days, until they were found to have considerable deposits of guano. Some were later used for coconut plantations, and in recent times, the development of air transport has made some of them valuable airports.

Cook discovered Christmas Island in 1777 and spent Christmas Day on the atoll. The other northern Line Islands were discovered by Captain Fanning of the American ship Betsy in 1798. The discoverers of the southern Line Islands had little to impart, except Captain Lord Byron in H.M.S. Blonde who discovered Maiden in 1825 and gave an account and a drawing of a marae on the island. The discoveries of the Phoenix Islands and Howland and Baker are shrouded in uncertainty.

Stone remains or other traces of previous human visits or occupation have been found on Washington, Fanning, Christmas, and Maiden and on Caroline in the Line Islands, on Howland Island, and on Sydney and Hull in the Phoenix Islands. Literature on the area is scanty.

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Bishop Museum, following its policy of regional survey, has gathered such information as was possible. The Whippoorwill Expedition examined the archaeological remnants on Howland in 1924. The Kaimiloa Expedition of 1924 gave Kenneth P. Emory the opportunity of visiting Fanning, Christmas, and Malden and making field observations. Part of a canoe found in a bog in Washington Island was given by the Greig brothers to the Museum, and from their notes and scanty references in the literature, Emory was able to write up the archaeology of the equatorial islands, omitting Caroline Island and the Phoenix Islands.

The Phoenix Islands were visited by the Zaca Expedition in 1933, and Gordon Macgregor made a survey of the archaeological remains, but his manuscript has yet to be published.