Micronesian Diary
Felicia R. Beardsley

For the people of the Federated States of Micronesia the need is urgent, given the change that is certain with advance of development in the region. Most of their heritage sites and cultural resources have yet to be documented and evaluated; much of it --- including what may turn out to be a fair number of pre-contact stone villages and ceremonial sites --- remains hidden under dense jungle. These remains are not simply piles of stone rubble; the stone villages and platforms of the FSM represent valuable clues in the history of all Pacific peoples. They represent, among other things, the farthest northern extension of stone platform construction in the western Pacific so far identified (comparable to similar constructions in the Marquesas, on Easter Island, and in Palau).

Too little is known of the archaeological record of the FSM. According to Dr. Beardsley and others there is the distinct possibility that the region holds the key to the “missing link” in dating human occupation in the region (a gap in the archaeological record linking the western and eastern Pacific that Paul Rainbird refers to as “the Carolinian Dark Ages”). Most of the historical and archaeological work up to now has focused on the most visible (and protected) monument at Nan Madol on Pohnpei, which is but the merest fraction of what is possible.

The urgency of this work is not confined to the FSM, of course; it is felt worldwide. In the May/June 1996 issue of Southeast Asian Archaeology International Newsletter, published by the Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, Kamarruzaman Abdul Rahman writes: "The rapid development of Southeast Asian countries has had profound effects on the preservation of archaeological sites." Rahman goes on to say that more training is needed for young, local archaeologists. But, he complains, the organizations in the region who might fund such training suffer "financial limitations." Similar concerns were voiced in the May 1995 issue of Scientific American ("The Preservation of the Past," by Marguerite Holloway): "The principal threat to archaeological sites are the same ones cited by environmentalists as endangering biodiversity: development, population growth, tourism, illegal traffic, air pollution, war, neglect and, in some cases, botched efforts at conservation."

The FSM is classified as a developing nation, and indeed the need for economic development to better the lives of its people is urgent, says Dr. Beardsley. At the same time, she goes on to say, the need for economic development must be weighed at each step by the need to study, understand, and, where appropriate, preserve its links to the past. The cultural information held in the remains of the past is important, not only for the Micronesians, but for all of us as we struggle to understand what makes each of us who we are and also what connects us as human beings.

"Explorers and missionaries made their way through here," she says, "sometimes leaving journals filled with their observations and commentary. Anthropologists come this way, most often to collect ethnographic information. Only a handful of archaeologists come, however, and that's too bad."

Dr. Beardsley points to the magnificent 13th-century stone complexes at Nan Madol and Lelu, saying: "Since the time of the first European contact the tendency has been to underestimate the Micronesians. I recall some popular literature from the 1930s where the authors credit the building of Nan Madol in particular to 'an unkown race' and attributing motives that were quite far-fetched. "Even today," she says, "many people, including many of my colleagues, seem reluctant to see any of this as much more than the remains of an old, rather localized collection of chiefdoms. I think there is good evidence to suggest that they were much more than that. If we look at the total picture, taking into account information from Micronesian informants, reports of early visitors, the evidence of exchange with other islands --- trade, the exercise of political power, etc. --- we can begin to see Nan Madol and Lelu in a better light. What I am beginning to see is that they were most likely the administrative capitals of two, sometimes allied island states that for five centuries supported a vibrant and capable civilization comparable in several respects to the Incan empire in 13th-century Peru and Ecuador.

"Such things don't appear out of nowhere," she says. "They have histories. The problem is that the only available text is in the traces they left behind on the ground, now obscured in watery mangroves or overrun by dense jungle. Moreover, where sites are accessible it very often becomes a race between the archaeologists and the bulldozers and dredges that operate at the advancing edge of economic development in the region."

"In Micronesia," she says, "the oral histories are quite important. Most pre-historic sites, landscape features, and other important elements in the environment have stories attached to them, some of them rather significant in terms of helping to explain the origin of a place or thing, its use, its place in the overall scheme of life. I've been fortunate in that I have been able to find very good people here who can assist me in that regard. I will introduce them in the course of the development of these pages."