ASPECTS OF MICRONESIA

Almost lost in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean are the tiny islands, the remarkable people, and the ancient architecture of Micronesia. The methods used to construct prehistoric monuments, as well as their materials, sizes, functions, and designs, vary widely from one island group to the next. Prismatic basalt and coral native to Pohnpei and Kosrae were used by resourceful builders to create the dramatic stone cities of Nan Madol and Leluh, respectively. Beautifully terraced hills with sculpted earthen crowns abound on twenty-six-mile-long Babeldaob Island in the Palau Archipelago. Carefully fitted stone platforms with hexagonal plans form the bases of meeting houses, residences, and other ornamented structures of wood in the Yap Islands. The enigmatic latte stone columns and capitals of the Marianas apparently once served as the foundations for wood houses raised above the ground, sometimes as high as sixteen feet. This study examines some of the best recorded examples of prehistoric architecture on five of the major island groups in Micronesia

           

The islands of Micronesia lie in the Western Pacific near the equator, east of the Philippines and north of Melanesia. They include the Marianas, the Carolines, the Marshalls, Kiribati, and Nauru. The total land area of the islands is some 708 square miles, a very small area compared to the 3 million square miles of water in Micronesia. For each square mile of land there are well more than 4,200 square miles of sea. The distance from Tobi Island southwest of Palau to Arorae in Kiribati is about 3,150 miles, some 500 miles greater than the distance from Boston to San Francisco. The population of Micronesia in 1986, excluding the mixed population of Guam, was estimated to be perhaps 135,000 people with an annual growth rate in the range of 1 to 3 per cent.

The largest of the world's ocean, the Pacific covers almost one-third of the planet and contains almost one-half of its water. South of Guam the Pacific plunges to a depth of 35,810 feet in the Marianas Trench, the ocean's deepest abyss. The relatively very small islands of Micronesia, ranging in size from 215 square-mile Guam to have specks of coral reefs, probably were among the last habitable areas on earth to be occupied by human beings.

Quite likely the earliest settlers to arrive in Micronesia brought with them ideas about architecture from their homelands. In time populations increased people occasionally migrated between islands, and traders exchanged goods and presumably, ideas. Thus the ancient architecture of Micronesia might have been expected to evolve with a relatively uniform and limited vocabulary of architectural design and planning ideas. However, precisely the opposite is the case. Given generally similar technologies and materials, the ancient builders of Micronesia developed an exceptionally broad range of approaches to architecture.

The 8-foot high stone column and capstone
from the Mepo site probably once supported
a traditional frame house.

For the purpose of the study, the term "prehistory" refers to times antedating written history. While "architecture" often refers to the art or science of building, here the term alludes specifically to structures whose designs move well beyond the functional necessities of shelter. Architecture expresses the choices, preferences, and predilections of the people who create it. In short, it is a reflection of the human spirit. Then study celebrates the distinguished architecture of ancient Micronesia and the remarkable islanders who created it.

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ISLAND TYPES

Palau, Yap, and the Marianas have high volcanic islands that rest on the Ocean's floor and rise to peaks above sea level. Geologically related to continental Asia, these islands frequently contain andesite. The islands on the continental self west of the andesite line are old and weathered compared to the more recent and rugged islands to the east, such as Pohnpei and Kosrae. The only area of current volcanic activity in Micronesia is located in the northern Marianas.

By far most of Micronesia's more than one thousand islands are coral rather than volcanic. All of the Marianas and Kiribati, and many of the Carolines, are coral atolls. Both classic reefs and raised coral islands are found in Micronesia. Classic reefs (Darwin, 1901) result from the growth of coral around the perimeters of subsiding volcanic islands than later disappear below sea level. The reefs continue to grow, and some eventually become islands averaging up to eight feet in height and several miles in height. Raised coral islands were formed on volcanic bases that reversed the pattern of subsidence and now rise fifty feet or more above sea level.

The often hilly and sometimes mountainous volcanic islands usually have fresh water streams., valleys suitable for cultivation, and stone useful in making tools. Varying widely in size, topography, and richness of soils, the volcanic islands offer greater diversity in plant materials and ecological zones than do the low coral islands where little or no soils are found.

ENVIRONMENT

The tropical maritime climate of Micronesia usually has temperatures averaging in the eighties throughout the year, with generally high humidity and rainfall. The climate in the western Caroline Islands and the Mariana Islands is much more seasonal than in the central and eastern Caroline Islands. Seasonal tradewinds tend to prevail from November through April or May. The typhoon season usually extends from June to November. About 180 inches of rain, the highest in Micronesia, falls annually on Pohnpei and the central Carolines. Yearly rainfall decreases to about 75 inches in the Marianas and the northern Marshalls and to less than 40 inches in southern Kiribati. The quantity of rain in Nauru fluctuates from as little as 15 inches to as much as 170 inches annually.

Typhoons pose a particular threat to the Carolines and Marianas. The tropical storms usually are much more powerful and potentially destructive than the Atlantic Ocean hurricanes that annually threaten the eastern United States. Some of the typhoons originate in the southern Marshalls, but the majority develop in the central Carolines. The storms often move westerly along the island chain before veering to the northwest and passing near Ulithi and Yap or through the southern Marians. High winds, mountainous seas, and air-borne salt water can contaminate fre3sh water sources and damage vegetation to the extent that recovery may require six or seven years, an unmitigated disaster for coral atolls.    

The most important substance crops in Micronesia traditionally were bananas, breadfruit, taro (Colocasia, Cyrlosperma, and other aroids), coconuts, sweet potatoes on Yap, and, on high islands, yams. Significant differences in agricultural practices between islands probably relate to climate and environmental factors. For example, breadfruit is the most important staple on Pohnpei, while Kosrae emphasizes swamp taro, and the Mariana Islands probably utilized primarily cycad nuts (fadang. Athens, 1986d: 24-25).

Another life tended to be very limited, although wild birds occasionally were caught and eaten and fruit bats were hunted on the larger islands of the Carolines and the Marianas. By far the most important sources of protein in the diet were the abundant fish, mollusks, and sea turtles harvested from the rich lagoons and seas surrounding the islands.

EARLY SETTLERS

The people of Micronesia are of Asian origin. Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests that people originally entered Micronesia at different times from two distinctly separate directions. The first group seems to have migrated to the Marianas, Palau, and possibly Yap from the direction of the islands of southeast Asia, perhaps the Philippines, Halimahera, or the Celebes (Sulawesi). The first settlers in Micronesia may have been the people who arrived in the Marianas, possibly about 1300 B.C.

A second group of settlers is believed to have migrated later to central and eastern Micronesia from eastern Melanesia, possibly the area of the Bismarck Archipelago, Vanuatu (the New Hebrides), or Fiji, with a probable link to Polynesia. The languages spoken on these islands, called nuclear Micronesian, are distinctly different from the languages of western Micronesia. Settlers are believed to have arrived in Pohnpei, Kosrae, and most of the major islands of the Carolines sometime between perhaps 500 BC, and the beginning of the Christian era.

Venasr Islet lies on the coral reef north of Leluh.
To the left is the main island of Kosrae; to the right, the Pacific Ocean.

Subsequently, canoes are believed to have continued arriving from outside Micronesia either intentionally or inadvertently, in much the same way that the original settlers arrived. As populations increased in Micronesia, internal migrations apparently occurred. For example, the people of Tobi Island southwest of Palau are said to have come from Ulithi Atoll, some 750 miles to the northeast. The type of movement apparently served to diffuse ideas and material items throughout Micronesia.

At the time of Magellan's arrival in 1921, the first Western contact with Micronesia, no fewer than twelve district languages were spoken in the islands. The widest geographic distribution of dialects occurred in the coral atolls of the central Carolines and Marshalls. The people loving in the low islands of Micronesia had highly developed canoe building and navigational skills, virtual necessities for survival on islands so vulnerable to typhoons. They became superb fishermen and consummate navigators. Lacking local sources of stone, the inventive artists fashioned adzes and other tools from shell, coral, bone, and wood. The low islanders sometimes travelled hundreds of miles in outrigger canoes to conduct trade and exchange ideas.

By contrast, the languages and ideas of the high islanders had comparatively restrict4ed distributions. They rarely took their canoes beyond the sight of their own coastlines. Living in relatively well protected and rich environments, the high islanders often were less widely travelled than the atoll dwellers, who conducted trade over large areas of Micronesia. perhaps the unique architectural characteristics traditionally associated with individual high islands groups were due in large part to the inward looking nature of their indigenous societies.

The people of Yap, Palau, the Marianas, and other western Micronesian islands today continue to cultivate Areca palms that yield the traditional stimulant "betel nut." The nuts are chewed with a mixture of locally produced powdered line and citrus juice. The ingredients combine to form a dark reddish juice that stains the chewer's teeth. Stains found on the remains of human teeth in ancient burial sites attest to the antiquity of betel nut chewing in western Micronesia.

A distinctive ceremonial beverage is used widely in the islands of eastern Micronesia. Called sakau on Pohnpei and saka (also suhka) on Kosrae, the drink is similar to kava in Polynesia. The beverage is prepared by pulverizing the root of a species of pepper plant (Macropiper methysticum) on a flat stone, mixing the residue with water, and squeezing the liquid through the soft, fibrous inner bark of the hibiscus tree. The beverage then is placed in a coconut shell and passed ritually from person to person. The effect is intoxicating. Like betel nut chewing in western Micronesia, sakau drinking in central and eastern Micronesia apparently was a common practice in ancient times and continues to be popular today.

TECHNOLOGY

The prehistoric architecture of Micronesia demonstrates an exceptionally high level of ingenuity and technological ability. Another impressive example of technological achievement by the islanders was the building of graceful outrigger canoes. Their carefully proportioned and finely hewn hulls often exceeding 40 feet in length, were lashed tightly together with coconut husk fibers. The hulls were carved with controlled asymmetry for improved maneuverability.

The canoes were rigged with single, triangular sails of plaited matting. The lateen sails were extended by a long spar slung to a low mast. The canoe's direction of movement could be reversed by moving the spar from one end of the double-ended hull to the other, while keeping the outrigger to windward. The Micronesian outriggers differed markedly from the double hull catamarans of Polynesia. Sailing canoes up to 100 feet long were used in Palau and the Marshall Islands, while those in the Carolines were at most some 60 feet long. Built without plans or metal tools and fastenings, the canoes were powered only by wind, currents, and paddles. Yet the ancient shipwrights and navigators accomplished passages of many hundreds of miles, sometimes to islands that they may not have known were there.

Today the natives of the remote islands of the central Carolines, such as Pulawat and Satawal, continue to build ocean0-voyaging canoes and to sail them according to millennium-old traditions. The accomplishments of their forefathers were greater and earlier than those of the Vikings. They colonized the remote islands of the vast Pacific, "a feat comparable to colonizing the frontiers of outer space in our time" (Malone; 1983:13).

Lacking compasses, sextants, or charts for guidance, Micronesian navigation reli3ed on their own understanding of the seas. Sea birds, such as frigates, boobies, and terns, indicate the directions to nearby islands. During the heat of the day clouds tend to form over the warm land masses of islands, indicating the existence of land often well beyond the horizon. Certain types of fish are associated with reefs and lagoons while others are pelagic. At night the navigators steered by the stars that rose and set unerringly (Stuart; 1983:327). Ocean swells provided the Micronesian navigators with another type of information. Sometimes swells roll on for thousands of miles, setting up secondary patterns when waves bounce back from islands. By feeling the pattern of a reflected swell, a navigator can fix his position and sail directly into the swell to teach the island.  

The Marshall Islanders invented a type of chart consisting of a geometric arrangement of sticks and shells that represented currents, swells, and islands. Once at sea, however, the mariners relied entirely on their own memories and senses to accomplish their remarkable fears of navigators. Memorized charts recording stars' names, seamarks, and other navigational information have been proved won through the generations. Students of navigation begin memorizing charts when they are about six years old, few complete the course. The process of memorization involves the repetition of rhythms verses about each chart, a procedure recalling the melodious sounds of canoe building. Similar chants accompany traditional house building in Micronesia.

FOREIGN CONTACT

No evidence exists for significant foreign influences in prehistoric Micronesia. The ancient ideas and achievements associated with the islands seem to have been produced entirely by the indigenous people before the time of Western contact.

Magellan's arrival in the Marianas in 1521 marks the beginning of the historic era in Micronesia and signals the commencement of foreign influence in the islands. The Marianas were th4e first islands to feel the brunt of Westernization. The people living on the islands were Charmorros, a Micronesian group about whom relatively little is known. By 1710, after several decades of epidemics, warfare, and disastrous typhoons, almost no Chamorros lived on any island other than Guam, where only 3,439 natives remained. The survivors are estimated to have numbered fewer than one-tenth of the precontact population (Spochr; 1954).

Although periods contact occurred with Palau during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was not until 1783 that the archipelago began to be opened up to the West. Kosrae remained relatively isolated until 1824 and some four years later Pohnpei initiated sustained contact with the West. Yap, perhaps the island group least affected by foreign influences, did not begin to trade with the West until 1843. Depopulation due to foreign diseases and other faction generally occurred throughout Micronesia., but nowhere was the destruction of a native culture more complete than in the Marianas, where no pure Chamorros survive today.

Spain maintained at least normal control of Micronesia, except Kiribati, from Magellan's time until the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. At that time the United States occupied Guam and Germany brought the remainder of the Marianas, Carolines, and Marshalls. On the eve of the First World War, Japan occupied Germany's former South Sea possessions. Following the Second World War, the United States began the administration of most of the islands under the mandate of a United Nations trusteeship.

In the late 1970s many Micronesian islanders began to exercise their sovereign rights to become self-governing entities in close association with the United States. The islands north of 'Guam elected to form the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in a status with the Unit4ed States similar to that of Puerto Rico. Palau and its neighbors became the independent republic of Belau, while Yap, Pohnpei, Truk, Kosrae, and then neighbors completed the sovereign Federated States of Micronesia. The Gilberts, formerly a British possession, joined most of the Phoenix and Line Islands to form the republic of Kiribati.

Since the late 1970s archaeologists and other scientists from the United 'States have greatly intensified their research in Micronesian prehistory. Many studies have been funded by the United States ins the interest of historic preservation. The new and struggling island governments encourage research with the view of developing the nascent tourist industries, while preserving their people's authentic cultural traditions.

The intensification of the investigation of Micronesian prehistory has been a boon to this study. Much of the information presented here was not available a decade ago. With this background in mind, the following sections present detailed examples of ancient architecture in Palau, Yap, Phnpei, Kosrae, and the Marianas with emphasis on Guam, Tinian, and Rota. 

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