Early History of Micronesia

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Formed in 1978, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is an island nation in the Caroline archipelago of the western Pacific Ocean. Most peoples in the FSM share a Micronesian heritage, languages and cultures differ among and within the different states. Each of the four states that compose the FSM: — Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap — has its own unique history and cultural traditions.

There are four major languages, Yapese, Chuukese, Pohnpeian, and Kosraean, all part of the Austronesian family. Eleven other languages and dialects are also spoken within the country, including two Polynesian languages. The many linguistic gaps are bridged by English, which is widely spoken and is the official language of the country. [Source: “Cities of the World”, Department of State Post Report dated March 1996]

According to legend the most people on Chuuk are descendants are a great chief named Sowukachaw who arrived on Chuuk from Kosrae with his son Sowooniiras in the 14th century. These people helped introduce a method preserving breadfruit through fermentation which helped people to survive droughts and bad harvest.

William A. Lessa wrote: In spite of the diversity within Micronesia, its cultures and old religions demonstrate certain shared patterns. These patterns can be seen in three areas: the Micronesian conception of the cosmos, the spirit inhabitants of this cosmos, and the patterns of interaction between spirits and humans. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005),Encyclopedia of Religion, Encyclopedia.com. Lessa (1908-1997 studied chemistry at Harvard University and earned his PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1947. He taught at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA and is regarded as "one of the pillars of anthropology in Micronesia", Lessa is best known for his work on Ulithi Atoll in Micronesia.]

Why these common traits exist when the Micronesian islands were settled by different peoples who spoke different languages and were widely separated from each other isn't entirely clear. Certainly the fact that the Micronesians were and still are some of the Pacific's finest boatbuilders and navigators is part of the explanation; they had the technology to make the Pacific Ocean not an obstacle but a means of colonizing and trading over long distances. Evidence of traffic in precontact Micronesia includes a highly organized trading and exchange system called the sawei (basket) that joined the people of Yap and the central Caroline atolls, with the Ulithi islands as the intermediary. Pottery exchanges show that this system began in the A.D. seventh century.

Ancient Micronesians

Historians speculate the islands of Micronesia were first settled between 2000 and 4000 B.C. The oldest human artifacts found in Micronesia date back to around 2000 B.C. and were found on Bikini atoll,

One of the most ancient sites in Oceania was identified in a wildlife refuge in Guam in the mid 2010s. According to Archaeology magazine:It dates back around 3,500 years and appears to have been occupied for three millennia by ancestors of the Chamorro, the native culture of the Mariana Islands. The site, called Ritidian, includes many stones from lattes, or megalithic capped columns that were used as foundations for buildings and are unique to the island chain. There are enough latte sets to observe how the home-building style there evolved over time and varied from house to house. [Source: Samir S. Patel Archaeology magazine, March-April 2017]

There is archeological evidence that Yap and Pohnpei were inhabited by A.D. 200. A decentralized chieftain-based system eventually evolved into a more centralized economic and religious empire based principally in Yap and Pohnpei. Using sources who were believed to have the power to causes typhoons and famine, the high chiefs of Yap proper established an empire that encompassed the Marianas in the north and the islands of what is now Chuuk to the east. Every year the chiefs of outer islands would offer the Yapese chiefs tributes to avoid bad magic caste their way.

For centuries people lived in balance with nature, surviving on reef fish, taro and breadfruit. Tools were made with wood, fibre, coral and shells. Many Micronesian battles were fought on the sea in hand-to-hand combat on the bamboo decks between the outrigger and the hull of the canoes. Fighters sometimes cut off the heads of their enemies and attached them to the bows of their canoes.

According to their oral tradition, the Gilbert Islanders laid eyes on South America many centuries before Columbus. After a four month voyage they reputedly saw the Andes mountains and turned around and went back home, describing what they saw as "the wall at the side of the world...a wall of mountains up against the sun.”

Early Melanesians and Micronesians

The first inhabitants of Micronesia probably came from Southeast Asia. Anthropologist believe they most likely arrived from the Philippines or Indonesia. The oldest human artifacts found in Micronesia, being found on Bikini atoll, is surprising because these island are much further from Indonesia and the Philippines than most of the islands in Micronesia.

Anthropologists theorize that most of the inhabitants of Micronesia are descendants of people who arrived in the eastern Marshall islands from Melanesia (New Guinea and the islands around it) and then migrated westward over the centuries to Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and finally Yap and Palau and the remote outer atolls.

Little is known about the early Melanesians and Micronesians because they had no written language. Even though they lacked metal tools they were able to traverse large distances across the open sea in outrigger canoes, using sophisticated navigation systems: 3000 miles from Malaysia or Indonesia to Madagascar; 2,500 miles from the South Pacific island to Easter Island; and 2,000 miles from the South Pacific islands to New Zealand.

Great Micronesian Civilizations

Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ the Chamarro people on Guam and the Marinas Islands quarried massive “latte” stones and used as foundations for some of their buildings.

On the northernmost point of the Palauan island of Babeldaob stand huge basalt monoliths whose origin is a mystery but appear to have been part of huge ceremonial structure that held thousands of people. Virtually nothing is known about the people who laid the these stones and terraced the nearby hillsides 2,000 years ago.

Yap’s society became strictly hierarchical, with chiefs receiving tributes from islands up to 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) away. Widespread human settlement in Chuuk began in the 1300s, and the different islands in the Chuuk Lagoon were frequently at war with one another.

Most of what is known about these ancient cultures has been ascertained from archeological excavations and information gleaned from modern islanders. Early Micronesian had no written language. Knowledge and history was passed on orally from generation to generation.

Nan Madol and Lelu

In the A.D. 800s, construction of the artificial islets at the Nan Madol complex in Pohnpei began, with the main architecture being built around 1200. At its height, Nan Madol united the approximately 25,000 people of Pohnpei under the Saudeleur Dynasty. Around the same time, Kosrae was united in a kingdom centered in Leluh by 1250. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

Before the arrival of Europeans, Kosraen lived under a stratified feudal system ruled by a paramount chief who resided in the ancient stone of Lelu. A group of high chiefs own the land, a group of lower chiefs manages it, and a peasant class worked the land and built canals and stone buildings. Ordinary people lived on the main island of Kosrae while the chiefs lived in 100 basalt-wall compounds on Lelu. According to old legends, the power of the Kosraen chiefs extended to Pohnpei and Chuuk.

Little is known about the great stone cities of Nan Madol on Pohnpei and Lelu on Kosrae. They thrived from A.D. 9th century to 13th century, when Europe was lost in the Dark Ages and the Mayan Civilization was at its zenith.

Saudeleur Dynasty

Nan Madol on Pohnpei reached its height under the Saudeleurs, a draconian royal dynasty referred as the first organized government of Micronesia. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The first of the sixteen Saudeleurs was Olosohpa, one of the builders of Nan Mandol. He ruled in the 12th century.

The Saudeleur dynasty was ruled by one man, the Saudeleur, who granted the use of land by the ruling class, who in turn ruled over craftsmen and commoners, who were required to pay tribute to the Saudeleur. The people resented the unwillingness of the Saudeleurs to share their wealth.

Under the Sadelier Sakon Mwehi a single lice on a person’s body was taken to Nan Madol. The favorite delicacy of the Saudeleur Raipwinloko was reportedly human flesh.

Pohnpei was divided into three wehi (states) during the Saudeleur period: Kohpwahlele (madolenihmw), Kohpwahleng (Kitti) and Pwahpwahlik (Sohehs). Late U and Nett became states, making up the present five municipalities of Pohnpei


The last Saudeleur was conquered by Isokelekel, who son Nahlepenien was the first Nahhnmwarki of Pohnpei. [Source: Lonely Planet]

According to legend the Saudeleurs by Isokelekel, the son of the Thunder God who was banished to Kosrae for having an affair with the wife of a Saudeleur. Isokelekel heard many stories about the cruel acts of the Saudeleurs when he was young. When he was old enough he took an army of 333 men to Nan Mandol and pretended to be friendly visitors, and later attacked. The sadeleurs fled and were tracked down and killed.

Isokelekel established a new dynasty. He lived at ruled at Nan Madol in the 13th century and was named Nahnmwarki. After his death World War was divide into five districts, each with its own nahnmwarki.

Nahhnmwarki did a lot of forbidden things to his father: he served fish ta the end of spear arhher than strung together, he climbed to his farther/s canoe from the wrong (outrigger) side, he entered the community house from the front rather the center,

Rule Under Isokekel and Nahnmwarki

Isokekel became the chief of the highest ranking clan, which had power over the clans that ruled Pohnpei's districts. Each district in turn was ruled by two separate leaders, the primary one from the highest ranking family in the clan and a secondary leader from the second most prominent family. A similar system in still in place. Today, Pohnpei is divided into five districts and each of which has primary and secondary rulers. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Each municipality had two traditional chieftain lines of rule: nahnmwarki and nahnken. Each line had 12 positions of rank. The nahnmwarki was considered to be sacred, speaking only to the Nahnken. The Naknken served as intermediary between the nahnmwarki and his people.

Land was owned by the Nhanmwarki. He leased land to th landlords, who oversaw the commoners who worked the land. The commoners were required to present the nhanmwarki with frequent tributes of fruits and fish. These traditions continue today at funerals and celebrations. The Nhanwarki system endures to this day.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2023

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