Early Human Burials in the Western Pacific: Evidence for a C.3000 Year Old Occupation on Palau

Article excerpt


Archaeological research in western Micronesia (Figure 1) during the past several decades has pushed back the earliest date of human settlement (Takayama 1982; Intoh 1997; Liston et al, i998a, 1998b, 1998c; Wielder et al. 1998; Dodson & Intoh 1999; Fitzpatrick 2002; Wickler 2001). But while Kurashina et al. (1983, 1984) demonstrated that the settlement of Guam occurred by at least 3500 BP (see Craib 1999 for a more recent review), the earliest dates from Yap (Gifford & Gifford 1959:159; Takayama 1982:107; Hunter-Anderson 1983:88) and Palau (Masse 1989, 1990; Masse et al. 1984) were around 2000 BP even after twenty years of investigation.


The contrast in dates from south to north led Masse (1989, 1990) to suggest that these island groups were settled independently and not in the 'stepping stone' fashion advocated by Osborne (1979). Osborne, despite not finding firm evidence for the settlement of Palau before 2000 BP, suggested that peoples probably moved through the Western Carolines on their way to the Marianas chain 4000 years ago. Masse (1989, 1990) later disputed this claim, noting at the time that no accepted [C.sup.14] dates were available to support Osborne's hypothesis and so he instead argued for a human settlement date of roughly AD 1 (Masse et al. 1984; Masse 1989, 1990).

Recent discoveries from Yap (Intoh 1997:28; Dodson & Intoh 1999) and extensive archaeological data recovered as part of the Compact Road project on the large volcanic island of Babeldaob in Palau have pushed the date of settlement of these islands back to 3300-3400 BE but the evidence is admittedly sparse (Liston et al 1998a, 1998c; Wickler et al. 1998). Paleoenvironmental evidence collected by Athens and Ward (1999) provides a proxy indicator of an even earlier human presence in Palau around 4500 BP although this has not been firmly established due to a dearth of archaeological evidence and reliable radiocarbon chronologies.

During the summer of 2000, twenty-six burials were discovered in deposits over a metre deep at the Chelechol ra Orrak site in Palau. A suite of 19 radiocarbon dates from the site provides archaeological evidence for human occupation c.3000 years ago, and perhaps earlier. This makes these burials the earliest evidence of a human presence in the limestone islands of the archipelago, and the oldest skeletal assemblage known thus far in the Pacific Islands outside of Melanesia.


Palau is located roughly 7 degrees north of the equator along the western edge of the Caroline Islands in Micronesia (Figure 1). The Palauan archipelago is comprised of several hundred islands that range from volcanic (e.g. Arakebesang, Babddaob and much of Koror and Malakal) to raised limestone (e.g. Pelelieu, Angaur, Chelebacheb), and atolls (e.g. Kayagel). Most of the islands are coralline and locally referred to as the "Rock Islands." These islands are geologically distinct front ones that lie along the southern and western reefs (e.g. Pelelieu, Ngemelis) which tend to have less dramatic karst topography and less consolidated reef formations.

The Chelechol ra Orrak ("beach of Orrak") site is located along the southern edge of Orrak Island among a small cluster of Rock Islands 1 km cast of Babeldaob's south-eastern tip (Figure 1 inset). The island is connected to Babeldaob by a prehistoric causeway constructed of coral rubble now covered in mangrove vegetation. The site was originally identified as a Yapese stone money quarry (Fitzpatrick 2001, 2003a) by Blaiyok (1993) and consists of several caves and small overhangs that stretch for about 200 metres just behind the shoreline (Figure 2).


Four test units were opened (two-1.0 x 1.0 m [units 1 and 2]; two-0.5 x 1.0 m [units 3 and 4 lie adjacent to each other]), three of which were excavated to 90 cm or more (units 1, 3 and 4). Soils in the upper 50 cm were typically a mixture of calcareous sand and silty loam with large quantities of shellfish and fish bone. …