Nan Madol: Archaeologists Uncover Earliest Evidence of Chiefdom in Pacific

Nan Madol, an ancient administrative and the former capital of the Micronesian island of Pohnpei, was the earliest among the Pacific islands to be ruled by a single chief, according to an international team of archaeologists.

Nan Madol ruins on the island of Pohnpei. Image credit: C.T. Snow / CC BY 2.0.

An ancient city built atop a coral reef, Nan Madol has been uninhabited for centuries now.

Located in the northwestern Pacific on the remote island of Pohnpei, it’s the largest archaeological site in Micronesia, a group of islands in the Caroline Archipelago of Oceania.

The ancient city was previously dated as being established in 1300 CE.

Southern Methodist University archaeologist Dr. Mark McCoy and his colleagues from the United States, China, Japan and UK narrowed that to just a 20-year window more than 100 years earlier, from 1180 to 1200.

The finding, published in the journal Quaternary Research, pushes back even earlier the establishment of the powerful dynasty of Saudeleur chiefs who asserted authority over the island society for more than 1,000 years.

“The kind of society that we live in today, it wasn’t born last year, or even 100 years ago,” Dr. McCoy said.

“It has its roots in a pre-modern era like Nan Madol where you have a king or chief. These islanders invented a new kind of society — that is a socially creative achievement.”

“The idea of chiefs, someone in charge, is not a new thing, but it’s an extremely important precursor. We know tribes and bands predate chiefdoms and states. But it’s not a straight line. By looking at these intermediate stages we get insight into that social phenomenon.”

The finding was uncovered as part of a National Geographic expedition to study a monumental tomb that oral histories identify as the resting place of the first chief of Pohnpei.

The tomb measures 262 x 196 feet (80 x 60 m), basically the size of a football field. It is more than 26 feet (8 m) tall, with exterior walls about 6 feet to 10 feet (1.8 to 3 m) thick. A maze of walls and interior walkways, it includes an underground crypt capped with basalt.

The archaeologists deployed uranium series dating to determine that when the tomb was built it was one-of-a-kind, making it the first monumental scaled burial site on the remote islands of the Pacific.

According to the team, by 1180 CE, massive stones were being transported from a volcanic plug on the opposite side of the island for construction of the tomb. And by 1200, the burial vault had its first internment, the island’s chief.

“How Nan Madol was built remains an engineering mystery, much like Egypt’s Pyramids,” Dr. McCoy said.

“It’s a fair comparison to the Pyramids, because the construction, like the Pyramids, didn’t help anyone — it didn’t help society be fairer, or to grow crops or to provide any social good.”

“It’s important to document such things because this architectural wonder indicates that independently of Egypt, another group of people put effort into building a monument.”

“Unlike Egypt and the Pyramids however, Nan Madol was invented much more recently in the big story of human prehistory.”

3D scan of the tomb for the first Saudeleur on the islet of Nandauwas: spheres represent scan locations (upper left); a horizontal cross-section of scanned points (from near ground level) shows in plan view burial architecture including thick exterior wall surrounding wall around the central tomb (upper right); a vertical cross-section shows the relative position of interior tomb (bottom) as well as portions of trees growing between the exterior and interior walls. Image credit: Mark D. McCoy et al / Scene LT, Faro.

The island of Pohnpei was originally settled in 1 CE by islanders from the Solomon or Vanuatu island groups.

The Saudeleur Dynasty is estimated to have begun its rule around 1160 by counting back generations from the modern day.

To build the tomb and other structures, naturally formed boulders of basalt, each weighing tons, were somehow transported far from existing quarries on the other side of the island to a lagoon overgrown with mangrove and stretching across 205 acres (83 hectares).

The basalt blocks formed when hot lava cooled and adopted the shape of long, column-shaped boulders and cobbles. Formed from 1 million to 8 million years ago, they came from a number of possible quarry locations on Pohnpei.

Nan Madol’s stone structures were built atop 98 shallow artificial coral reef islets, each one built by the Saudeleur people.

The structures were constructed about 3 feet (0.9 m) above waterline by laying down framing stones, filling the void between them with crushed coral, then laying up double parallel walls and again filling the gap between with crushed coral.

The islets are separated by tidal canals and protected from the ocean by 12 sea walls, making the ancient administrative center what many consider the Venice of the Pacific.

“The structures are very cleverly built. We think of coral as precious, but for the architects of Nan Madol it was a building material,” Dr. McCoy said.

“They were on a little island surrounded by huge amounts of coral reef that grows really quickly in this environment, so they could paddle out at low tide and mine the coral by smashing some off and breaking it up into rubble.”

Dr. McCoy suggests that future research look at finding the cause for this major turning point on Pohnpei, and what sparked this new hierarchy of rule and monumental building in this society.

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