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Micronesian history through art

By Raquel Bagnol

Micronesian arts depict every aspect of the islanders’ daily lives. The diverse art comes in the form of crafting tools, personal ornaments, clothing, architecture, figure carvings and religious masks.

In his paper titled “Arts of Micronesia,” Dr. Donald H. Rubinstein, professor of Anthropology and Micronesian Studies at the University of Guam, said Micronesian cultures, language and arts all tell stories of migration and continuing contacts among the Micronesian islands.

A notable feature in Micronesian art is the fine geometric surface designs that appear related to archaic Indonesian art. This influence is also visible in architectural structures, painted surfaces of wooden objects and patterns on loom-woven and plaited clothing. Similar patterns are also reflected in the lines and colors in shell ornaments, tattoos and woven garments.

Micronesians are known for being among the greatest seafarers in the world. Their ancestors built the world’s first seaworthy outrigger sailing vessels with large, lateen-type triangular sails. These vessels, which can be found throughout the Carolines, Marshalls and Kiribati, are designed to sail with either end forward.

Drawing inspiration from these double-ended vessels, containers like canoe-shaped food bowls became common in the Caroline Islands. In Chuuk, people carved canoe-shaped bowls from breadfruit logs and used them for ritual feasts. These bowls are so big that they required four or more men to lift them onto their pallets.

Kaniet Island settlers made canoe-shaped bowls with delicate carvings on two ends depicting human faces. In Yap, fishermen carved canoe-shaped tackle boxes that they used to carry their shell hooks, lures and other fishing gear.

For sea navigation, Micronesians found certain bird species that helped them find land. Given their important role in sea navigation, birds began to appear as a theme in artworks. In Yap, meeting houses are adorned with bird figures. Yapese artisans created bird-shaped bowls and coconut graters and adorned their canoes with carvings resembling a bird’s tail. In Palau, people carved bird-shaped containers.

Micronesians also used bird feathers and bones to fashion fishing lures, tattoo needles and personal ornaments like combs.

The ecology of life on these islands and coral atolls also played a big role in the development of Micronesian art. Pottery decorated with wood, plant fibers, vegetable pigments and shells became common.

The early settlers used shells and fish bones to make hooks and lures, blades and scrapers, as well as small cutting tools to prepare yarns for weaving. They also used shells to make personal ornaments like rings, bracelets, belts, pendants, and necklaces. In the Marshall Islands, people used fish-shaped beaters made from giant clam shells to prepare pandanus fiber for plaiting.

Stories of everyday life are also depicted in stone and rock art. In Palau, archaic stone carvings adorn house platforms or ceremonial grounds in the villages. Rocks with roughly carved features of human heads, lizards or crocodile forms are also common.

Micronesians have developed inter-island relationships to help each other during natural disasters such as typhoons and floods. This inter-island relationship resulted in the trading of valuables and art items, which served as currency and ceremonial exchanges between families. Trade items included coconut coir rope bundles, skirts, loincloths woven from traditional looms, shell jewelry and accessories.

Occasional warfare also broke out with inter-island or inter-village relationships. From these conflicts, one artifact associated with war in Oceania is the full body armor made from knotted coconut fiber that Nauru and Kiribati men wore in battle.


Micronesian art helps define one’s social status. Rubenstein pointed out that in most of Micronesia, fabrics that are more intricately and finely woven are associated with high status and rank.

In the Marshall Islands, plaited mats made from pandanus leaves are associated with royalty.

In Yap, machi or textiles that have more elaborate embroidered patterns are reserved for male chiefs, and for important purposes like burial shrouds for senior men and chiefs, as mantles during the ceremonial installation of island chiefs, or as tribute payments to high-ranking men.

In Pohnpei and Kosrae, those with political titles and status ranks are distinguished by the fineness of the loom-woven textiles they wear Even tattoos differentiate individuals according to seniority and status.

Rubenstein also noted that communal meeting houses in Micronesia show common features of art. Yap’s meeting houses depict intricate designs of squares and diamonds worked into the rope lashings. Palauan meeting houses display artwork narrating legends, tales and historical events.

Seafarers in Yap and Chuuk used weather charms made of a carved figure of a human head and torso and recited chants over the figure before going on a voyage to ask for safety.

These art forms show the unique adaptation of culture in Micronesia that has evolved over the past 400 years of settlement.

Raquel Bagnol is a longtime journalist. She worked as a reporter for Marianas Variety on Saipan and Island Times in Palau. Send feedback to

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