1) Back to the First Settlement of Our Islands

(2,000 years ago)
Where did we come from?

Most islanders have heard the story explaining how their clan first reached their island. They may also know the tales about the arrival of some of the other clans. One former student of mine, when I asked him about his clan’s origins on Fefan in Chuuk, told me that the founder of the clan was carried to his island on the back of a dolphin.

Even after their arrival, however, clans spread out, sometimes widely and in surprising ways. Often they changed names in the course of their movement. The real story of any clan will show twists and turns over the decades, and there are tales to describe all this as well.

Stories of origins

But we can go even further back than this. Now and then we hear ancient stories about the very old days–stories that seem to go back as far as our population does. In fact, these stories are supposed to explain the origins of our island population.

On Pohnpei, for instance, we have the legend of the man who supposedly founded the island.

Long ago there was a man living in Katau off to the east.  This man, Sapkini, built a large canoe that could carry many people.  His people believed that the sky was a roof that touched the sea far away, and if you went to the place where the sky meets the sea you would find land.

Sapkini asked seven other men and nine women to go with him in his sailing canoe to find good land.  On their voyage they saw an octopus and asked him who he was and where land could be found.  The octopus told them his name and said that he lived on a shoal that runs north-south.  The canoe went on and found the home of the octopus, a reef with a small bit of coral jutting out of the water.  On this tiny outcropping they began building their island from stones and rocks brought from faraway lands.

Chuukese, too, have their founding legends.

Long ago a woman and a man from the east floated on ivory nut palms to Chuuk lagoon. They followed a bird to Weno Island and lived in a cave there.

After the woman became pregnant, the man made a house for her. The man and woman had many children: six boys and six girls. The children were given special responsibilities. Onuk was to watch over the others so they remained in good health. Neufonu, a girl, was to plant things to grow in the land. The eldest son gave orders to the other children.

Palauans tell the story of the four sons of Milad, who populated Palau after the great flood.

After the waters receded, the gods found an old woman who had helped the seven messengers of the gods with her gift of cooked food. Her raft had overturned and she had drowned, but the gods brought her back to life. Thereupon, she took the name Milad. She became the founding goddess of the new Palau.

Milad gave birth to the stone figures of the four leading villages of Palau: Ngeremlengui, the oldest son;  Melekeok, her second son; Aimeliik, her daughter; and Koror,the youngest son.

Movement back and forth through the islands.

Even after the early settlement, the interaction between the different island groups was captured in legend. As the centuries passed and these settlers became rooted on their islands, currents flowed and influences passed from one island group to another. After all, these inhabitants were “sea people” with their ocean-going canoes and sophisticated navigational systems.

Kachaw is a name that pops up frequently in the old stories. One of the two leaders of a later expedition into Chuuk bore the name in his title: Soukachaw. According to the story, he and his companions came from Kachaw, settled in Chuuk, and founded a new clan system there. Isokelekel, the leader of the forces that defeated the Sauduleurs and ended their long reign on Pohnpei, supposedly came from Kachaw. Even if Kachaw can not simply be identified with the island of Kosrae, what does it represent? Many cultural historians now agree that Kachaw refers to a place beyond the horizon–a place not to be found on the known map and therefore located somewhere in the heavens, either to the east or the west.

Iap is another name that crops up repeatedly in oral history. There are place names in Chuuk and Pohnpei associated with Iap. The stories often speak of the great magical powers that sorcerers from Iap wielded. Chuukese tell of the contest between sorcerers from Iap and from the western islands in Chuuk Lagoon–a contest that ended with one of the highest mountains there being sliced in half. Is Iap to be identified with the high island of Yap? Or could the term refer to one of the coral atolls to the west, islands that were constantly dispatching sailing canoes back and forth? Whatever the case, religion–and the “power” (mana) associated with it–seems to have been a major theme in the legends referring to Iap.

Yap and Palau maintained links with one another for hundreds of years. Yapese canoes regularly sailed to Palau, a couple hundred miles to the southwest, for the limestone rocks they used for their famous stone money. In return for the quarried stone, Yapese would offer valuable beads from their own island. In addition, sailing canoes from the atolls of the Central Carolines were visiting Yap as the final stop on the trade route that had become a regular feature of island life. So all the islands in the west were linked by these occasional visits in the past.

Was there a religious cult spreading through eastern Micronesia that regarded basaltic rock as sacred?  There were hints that such a cult might have been common on Pohnpei and Kosrae at one time, and that this cult was spreading to other places. The arrival of Soukachaw and Souwoniras in Chuuk did more than found a new clan and alter the social system; it seems to have begun the veneration of basaltic rock there.  Meanwhile, even the Marshall Islands, which has no basaltic rock at all throughout its atolls, acquired two slabs of rock on Namu Island, a place long regarded as the mother of all Marshallese clans.

The Marshalls, too, has its own stories of encounters with other islands in the region. According to one tale, Marshallese leaders were stranded on Pohnpei after drifting there in their canoe. During their time on the island, the story goes, they taught Pohnpeians how to use magic to move the huge slabs to Nan Madol for construction of the site that would soon be built there. Whatever may have happened, the story suggests that not all tales of magical influence pointed in the direction of Yap; some ascribed the power as coming from the east as well.

Throughout the centuries, then, the legends suggest considerable contact among the different island groups in Micronesia. The map of these islands below, drawn from the report of island navigators who reached the Philippines in the late 1600s, shows how much of the Micronesia world they knew.          

Map of Carolines, sketched from information supplied by Micronesian navigators in 1696
Polynesian influence

Something very significant happened about one thousand years ago, we know. Around this time huge stone monuments were built on Pohnpei and Kosrae: Nan Madol on Pohnpei and the stone compound at Lelu, Kosrae. Sometime after that the stone monoliths in Babeldaob were carved on Palau. At roughly the same time, the giant stone pillars and capstones began appearing in the Marianas, marking the beginning of the Latte Period. All this seems to have been part of a renaissance throughout the Pacific. Large stone monuments were going up in other island groups as well: the famous gigantic figures on Easter Island, the stone archway in Tonga, and the ancestral stone figures on Rapanui.

Stone Remains in Kosrae, Pohnpei and Palau

At about the same time something else was beginning to happen. Polynesians, who had been clustered for perhaps two thousand years in Samoa and Tonga, seem to have finally begun their expansion into French Polynesia, Hawaii, New Zealand and other places formerly unsettled. Why they had been so slow to continue their explorations is a mystery. In any case, it seems that the Polynesians exploded all at once to settle the remainder of the Pacific.

Map of Eastern Micronesia and South Pacific showing places where Polynesian influence was especially felt

During this expansion, Polynesians reached Micronesia, settling the two coral atolls of Nukuoro and Kapingamarangi. They almost certainly also touched the eastern island groups in Micronesia: Marshalls, Kosrae and Pohnpei. We don’t know exactly when or for how long, but the cultures of those islands still bear some of the distinctive marks: paramount chieftainships, honorific language, and some of the respect customs, kava (or sakau), and residual bits of the language. Polynesians came and had their impact, but did not stay. The culture remained Micronesian, but with some big changes in the islands visited. Chiefs, who had once held limited authority in the major island groups in the east, were now treated as if they were kings.

Loss of navigation on high islands

Meanwhile, those seafarers who settled on most of the high islands in Micronesia lost their navigational skills in time. They continued to build smaller canoes to fish off-shore, but not the ocean-going canoes their ancestors had depended on to get to these islands. There was no longer any need for them to sail long distances except in Yap, where men had to navigate to Palau and bring back the limestone discs they used as valuables. As for the rest, they had what they needed on the high islands. Only in the coral atolls, where life was precarious and food might be wiped out in a typhoon, were those navigational skills and the construction of those canoes of continuing importance. After all, their lives might depend on using these skills to find resources somewhere else.

This is the introduction of a five-part series of posts on Micronesian Origins. The full list of posts are available below. You may also browse or download the PDF below.

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About the author

Francis X. Hezel, SJ
Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Francis X. Hezel, SJ, is a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in Micronesia since 1963. At different times he has served as high school teacher, school administrator, pastor, and regional superior to the Jesuits of Micronesia. He spent thirty years directing the Micronesian Seminar, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Pohnpei, Micronesia. He has written and spoken widely about social change and its impact on island societies. He has also written several books on Micronesian history, including The First Taint of Civilization, Strangers in Their Own Land, and The New Shape of Old Island Cultures. His most recent book, Making Sense of Micronesia: The Logic of Pacific Island Culture, is available through University of Hawaii Press.