Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

The Maritime Transport of Prehistoric Megaliths in Micronesia

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

The Maritime Transport of Prehistoric Megaliths in Micronesia

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper examines Micronesian examples of megalithic transport, focusing particularly on the ocean transport of the famous stone money disks quarried in Palau by Yapese Islanders and moved back to Yap prior to European contact. Using a combination of climatic, oceanographic, ethnohistorical, ethnographic, and archaeological data, we examine the maritime technologies that the Yapese could have used to transport stone money across several hundred kilometres of open-ocean and offer hypotheses to show how this might have been accomplished using bamboo rafts, canoes and rafts towed by fishing canoes.

Keywords: megaliths, transport, stone money, Yap, Palau, Micronesia

Introduction

Large stones or 'megaliths' many weighing in excess of 1000kg, were some of the most socially important and archaeologically visible resources used in the Pacific Islands. The largest and most famous examples of megaliths in Oceania are the moai statues of Rapa Nui (Bahn and Flenley, 1992; Burley, 1993; Mulloy, 1970; Rainbird, 2002; Van Tilburg, 1995). Other well-known examples in the region are beachrock or limestone slabs used for chiefly backrests, fortifications, and tomb enclosures in Tonga (Burley, 1993; Burley, 1998; Kirch, 2000; McKern, 1929), the stone faces of Palau (Osborne 1979:161; 174-176), latte stones in the Marianas (Russell 1998), basalt columns and boulders in both Pohnpei (Ayres and Scheller 2001) and Kosrae (Athens, 1990; Athens, 1995; Rainbird, 1995), and the stone money disks of Yap (Fitzpatrick, 2002, 2003a; Fitzpatrick and Diveley, 2004).

Ethnographic, ethnohistorical, and archaeological research demonstrates the importance that megaliths had to societies in the Pacific and the roles they played in spiritual and economic development and the rise of sociopolitical complexity. Despite megaliths having been found throughout the Pacific, however, the methods used for quarrying and transporting them are processes still not fully understood. Archaeological investigations (Ayres and Scheller 2001; Fitzpatrick and Diveley 2004), and aerial photography (Lipo and Hunt 2005) have shown that megaliths were moved from their quarries to other locations. Modern experiments dedicated to investigating the process of moving stones in Indonesia (Heizer 1966), Rapa Nui (Mulloy 1970; Van Tilburg 1995), and Pohnpei (Ayres and Scheller 2001), illustrate some of the difficulties in moving megaliths over land, and in the latter case, across shallow lagoons. Little research has been conducted, however, on how megaliths in Oceania could be transported over open water and the technologies possibly used to accomplish this task.

That megaliths were transported between islands testifies to the willingness of native Pacific Islanders to exploit distant resources and in the process, risk their lives to acquire socially and economically important stone, similar to other parts of the world. Micronesia, a region that comprises the northwestern part of the Pacific, is especially well suited for analysing megalithic production and transport because numerous examples exist whereby indigenous groups exploited and shaped stone and then transported them to different locations.

In an effort to better understand the engineering and labour requirements needed to transport megaliths of varying size, we examine the overseas transport of some of the most well known megaliths in Micronesia--Yapese stone money disks. These disks were quarried from limestone in Palau by Yapese Islanders and moved over 400 km back to Yap prior to and after European contact.

We recognize that not all disks were created equal. These megaliths come in varying shapes and sizes that changed through time in concert with available (and continually improved) technologies. The size of stones moved in prehistoric times probably did not exceed 2 m in diameter 'as the largest canoes were unable to carry more than one piece of this dimension' (de Beauclair, 1963). …

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