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Palau - History

The timing of the first human colonization of Palau is unclear. The majority of reliable radiocarbon dates from archaeological sites suggest a first occupation around 3000 cal years ago or slightly earlier, although less reliable dates have indicated a first occupation potentially as early as 4000 cal years ago. Subsidence of the rock islands since mid-Holocene times, however, may have resulted in a situation in which the earliest coastal habitation sites now lie below sea level. Palynological evidence (in the form of a sharp increase in the amount of charcoal grains and a marked change in the mix of plant taxa represented in pollen sequences, both reflecting anthropic alteration of the native forest community) indirectly suggests a human presence possibly as early as 4500 years ago.

Palau includes, to the south of the capital of Koror, hundreds of islets and islands of raised limestone that are colloquially known as the “rock islands”. The rock islands contain numerous caves and rock shelters, and many of these sites contain abundant fossilized or subfossilized human remains. At least ten burial caves have been discovered in the rock islands, and excavations at one of them (Chelechol ra Orrak) has produced the skeletal remains of at least 25 individuals. The remains discussed here were recovered from two such sites (Ucheliungs and Omedokel caves), which appear to have served exclusively as burial sites for the early inhabitants of the islands (absence of cultural remains and living debris indicates that these caves were not habitation sites).

Recent surface collection and test excavation in limestone caves in the rock islands of Palau, Micronesia, has produced a sizeable sample of human skeletal remains dating roughly between 940-2890 cal ybp. Preliminary analysis indicates that this material is important for two reasons. First, individuals from the older time horizons are small in body size even relative to "pygmoid" populations from Southeast Asia and Indonesia, and thus may represent a marked case of human insular dwarfism. Second, while possessing a number of derived features that align them with Homo sapiens, the human remains from Palau also exhibit several skeletal traits that are considered to be primitive for the genus Homo. These features may be previously unrecognized developmental correlates of small body size and, if so, they may have important implications for interpreting the taxonomic affinities of fossil specimens of Homo.

Living humans exhibit marked inter-populational variation in mean body size and body proportions, which reflects in part adaptive responses to variation in climatic conditions, ecological circumstances, energetics and predation risk. Within this broad pattern of human body size polymorphism are a number of cases of “pygmoid” or dwarfed populations. Pygmy populations are known from mainland tropical forests and tropical island settings in Africa and Southeast Asia, reflecting parallel cases of dwarfing in response to the combined factors of relative genetic isolation, a reduced resource base, hot and humid climates, hilly topography, thick undergrowth of vegetation, and (in certain island contexts) an absence of terrestrial predators.

Preliminary sampling of two burial caves in Palau, Micronesia has produced the remains of small-bodied recent H. sapiens, possibly representing a case of insular dwarfing. Individuals in this sample exhibit, in addition to small body size, reduction of the absolute size of the face, distinct supraorbital tori (in some individuals), a weakly developed mental eminence, relatively large dental dimensions, and dental dysplasias and agenesis. Some of these features may be considered primitive for the genus Homo (or trending towards the primitive condition), thus the human fossils from Palau may provide important insights into the relationship between small body size and the expression of morphological features generally considered to be taxonomically diagnostic.

Body mass estimates range from 28 kg [60 lbs] for female specimens to 48 kg [105 lbs] for the males. For comparison, presently in the United States men's weight would range from 130 lbs [for for a 5'2" tall man with a small frame] to about 200 lbs for [for for a 6'4" tall man with a large frame]. Women's weight would range from 105 lbs [for for a 4'10" tall woman with a small frame] to about 170 lbs for [for for a 6'0" tall woman with a large frame].

Studies indicate that today's Palauans are distant relatives of the Malays of Indonesia, Melanesians of New Guinea and Polynesians. Calculating the date of their arrivals, carbon dating of artifacts from the oldest known village sites on the Rock Islands and the spectacular terraces on Babeldaob place civilization as early as 1,000 BC.

The most noteworthy first foreign contact took place in 1783 when the vessel Antelope, under the command of English Captain Henry Wilson, was shipwrecked on a reef near Ulong, a Rock Island located between Koror and Peleliu. With the assistance of Koror's High Chief Ibedul, Wilson and his men stayed for three months to rebuild his ship. From that time onward, many foreign explorers called on Palau and the islands were exposed to further European contact.

Foreign governance of the islands officially began when Pope Leo XIII asserted Spain's rights over the Caroline Islands in 1885. Two churches were established and maintained by two Capuchin priests and two brothers, resulting in the introduction of the Roman alphabet and the elimination of inter-village wars. In 1899, Spain sold the Carolines to Germany, which established an organized program to exploit the islands' natural resources.

Following Germany's defeat in the Great War, the islands were passed to the Japanese under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The Japanese influence on the Palauan culture was immense as it shifted the economy from a level of subsistence to a market economy and property ownership from the clan to individuals. In 1922, Koror became the administrative center for all Japanese possessions in the South Pacific. The town of Koror was a stylish metropolis with factories, shops, public baths, restaurants and pharmacies.

The US watched Japan occupy large areas within the Pacific region. Islands that most had never heard of were all of a sudden were on headlines throughout papers throughout this country. In September 1944 the United States paid the price of 10,000 casualties, US Marines and sailors, to liberate Peleliu, modern-day Palau, from the empire of Japan. Everyone knew where Peleliu was at that time.

Following Japan's defeat in World War II, the Carolines, Marianas and Marshall Islands became United Nations Trust Territories under US administration, with Palau being named as one of six island districts. As part of its mandate, the US was to improve Palau's infrastructure and educational system in order for it to become a self-sufficient nation. This finally came on 01 October 1994, when Palau gained its independence upon the signing of the Compact of Free Association with the United States.

With their World War II artifacts, the islands of Peleliu, home to the WWII Memorial Museum, and Angaur are perhaps known more for the man-made relics left over from momentous battles more than half a century ago. But this does not in any way diminish their substantial contribution to the natural beauty of Palau.

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Page last modified: 06-05-2021 17:05:35 ZULU