Humans settled in Palau much earlier than previously thought
Updated: Apr 16
By Raquel Bagnol
Dead men tell no tales, but skeletons can tell volumes of stories about the past.
Just about a mile off Airai surrounded by the picturesque Airai Bay in Palau is Chelechol ra Orrak (or Beach of Orrak), a coastal area that holds vital clues and evidence that early settlement in Palau started 3,000 years back.
Located along the southern edge of Orrak Island, Chelechol ra Orrak is connected to Babeldaob by a prehistoric causeway made of coral rubble. The causeway is now all covered in mangrove vegetation.
According to Dr. Scott M. Fitzpatrick, an archeologist at the University of Oregon, the burial site shows the radiocarbon dates of bone, charcoal and shell collected from the Chelechol ra Orrak site in Palau that provide a chronology of human presence spanning 3,000 years or more.
The archeologist said the skeletal assemblage found at the site was the oldest known thus far in the Pacific islands region outside of Melanesia.
Fitzpatrick's research titled "Early Human Burials in the Western Pacific: Evidence for a c. 3,000-Year-Old Occupation on Palau," published online by Cambridge University Press in January 2015, pointed out that several archeologists provided different possible dates of early settlement in Palau.
However, as the Palau Compact Road project got underway, more archeological data were discovered, pushing the date of the settlement of Palau back to 3300-3400 BP.
The 53-mile Palau Compact Road project costing $149 million was completed in 2007 under the terms of the Compact of Free Association between Palau and the United States. The project included the construction of embankments, causeways and bridges, drainage installations, relocation of power poles and the removal and disposal of World War II ordnance.
In the summer of 2000, archeologists discovered 26 burials over a meter deep at the Chelechol ra Orrak site. The area consisted of several caves and small overhangs stretching for about 200 meters behind the shoreline. It was used as a quarry for Yapese stone money, and briefly by the Japanese during World War II.
When archaeologists opened four test units in Chelechol ra Orrak, they found other artifacts besides human remains. Discoveries included pottery, glass beads, pearl shell tools, stone adzes, shell ornaments, a drilled turtle plastron fragment, and a bone needle.
They found three pearl shell scraper/grater tools in the female burial sites. This was traditionally considered women's money (chesiuch) and suggested gender and status markers.
Fitzpatrick said a fragment from the pearl shell scraper/grater later showed it is dated to 1720 cal BP.
Samples of bone, charcoal, and shell from the Chelechol ra Orrak site were sent to two different laboratories at the University of Arizona and the National Ocean Sciences Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility in Massachusetts for AMS radiocarbon dating
Fitzpatrick said the radiocarbon dates from test units indicate that burial activity at Chelechol ra Orrak took place between 2300 to 3000 cal PB, and possibly earlier.
Archeologists found that the acidic volcanic soil of Palau makes it hard to discover intact and well-preserved burials. It also makes assembling skeletal remains challenging.
Earlier discoveries showed that most of the human remains in Palau have been discovered in either stone platforms within traditional village sites, terrace complexes, or in limestone caves.
The survey on Orrak continued in 2002. Fitzpatrick said additional human remains were discovered tucked away in crevices near the site and in deep caves within the island. He said some of the remains were absorbed into the still-growing flowstone and dripstone formations.
Earlier research conducted by Norwegian archeologist Stephen Wickler in 2001 pointed out the likelihood that the initial settlement in Palau was focused along the coastal margins of Babeldaob.
Early settlers would go for the coastal areas because it's where resources would have been abundant compared to the limestone islands.
Wickler said possible tectonic uplift in the island may have caused a majority of the early coastal sites to erode away, leaving minimal evidence of human occupation before the first millennium BC.
Raquel Bagnol is a freelance journalist. She worked as a reporter for the now-defunct Palau Horizon in Palau and Marianas Variety on Saipan. Send feedback to email@example.com