National Geographic : 1956 Apr
Ifalik, Lonely Paradise of the South Seas A Trio of Scientists Finds Ancestral Ways Holding Their Own Among Contented Islanders of a Remote Pacific Atoll BY MARSTON BATES, PH.D. 547 With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author THE beginning of the Ifalik expedition, so far as I was concerned, came by way of a telephone call. It was Dr. Alex ander Spoehr, talking from Chicago. Alex had recently resigned as Curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the Chicago Natural History Museum to take the directorship of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. He and I share the view that palm trees make a much more at tractive landscape than snow, and my envy of his shift from Chicago to Honolulu had been obvious. This time Alex had a concrete proposition. "How would you like to spend next summer on a Pacific atoll?" he asked. Ifalik Provides Ideal "Laboratory" An official letter of invitation came a few days later from the Pacific Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences. The site selected for the study-the fourth in a series of intensive atoll studies financed by the Geography Branch of the Office of Naval Research-was Ifalik, in the western Caro lines. Three scientists were to spend the summer there, analyzing the relationships be tween man and his environment in a rela tively simple situation, uncomplicated by the gadgets and specializations of modern civili zation.* At Ifalik that environment consists of a circular reef with small patches of coral rock and sand, situated in the vast reaches of the tropical Pacific (map, page 550). Somehow, despite successive administration by Germany, Japan, and, finally, the United States under a United Nations trusteeship, the kindly people of Ifalik have held firmly to their ancestral ways. The atoll promised to be an ideal laboratory for such a study. We made up a well-rounded trio. Edwin G. Burrows of the University of Connecticut is an anthropologist. With a colleague, he had spent six months on Ifalik in 1947-48 and was familiar with the people and their lan guage. Donald P. Abbott of Stanford Uni versity knows about the life of the sea, which is so important to man on a tiny Pacific island. I am on the faculty of the Univer sity of Michigan and would study the plants, insects, and tropical climate-in short, the ecology of the land itself. The three of us stopped for a few days in Honolulu to talk over plans and then flew on to Guam, where we were busy for a week with final preparations. The Coast Guard had arranged to take us from Guam to Ifalik on the converted Army cargo ship Nettle. We sailed at noon on Saturday, June 20. It was a marvelous feeling to be sailing a tropical sea; to relax, to wash worries and busyness from the mind; to lean over the rail and watch the bow cutting cleanly through the sapphire water; to do nothing, to feel no need to do anything. I shed my shoes and shirt, not to wear them again until Sep tember. We were free! We were off to Ifalik, to an atoll, a coral reef, a lagoon, a fragment of Micronesia, a summer in paradise! A Flaw Appears in Paradise We arrived at dawn on Monday. Don noted the first impression in his journal: "Looked out of the port on awakening ... and there was Ifalik-reef, lagoon, islets, and all, everything a remote South Sea atoll should have-impossibly attractive and look ing at us with the love light in her eyes." That first love light, however, was clearly a product of faith. The weather was cool, the sky overcast, and there was a strong surf running. There was no sign of human life. The atoll's first messengers were flies, hordes of them, that settled everywhere on the ship. We hardly noticed them in the excitement, but later, when we were able to make some appraisal of the flaws in paradise, the flies won first place. Presently an old man appeared, paddling a canoe through the heavy swell. We threw him a line, and he came scrambling over the * See "Pacific Wards of Uncle Sam," by W. Robert Moore, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July, 1948.