Micronesia's Mysterious Nan Madol
by Brad Olsen

Although dozens of ancient sites exist on various islands in the Pacific Ocean, a virtually uninhabited island off the main island of Pohnpei in Micronesia has to be one of the strangest sites found anywhere on Earth.

Nan Madol travel

Early European explorers called the ruined city of Nan Madol the "Eighth Wonder of the World" and the "Venice of the Pacific" because the ancient city was built upon a coral reef and is intersected by artificial water canals. When it was first chronicled by Western biographers, they too were confounded about how the site could have reached its megalithic proportions. There is a location on nearby Pohnpei island where the megalithic columnar basalt "logs" were quarried to construct the 90 or so structures, but the big question has always been how did they transport the massive slabs to Nan Madol?

Nan Madol is located on the remote Micronesian cluster of islands surrounding the main island Pohnpei, far from any population centers. All food supplies and fresh water would have been transported in from elsewhere. Built atop a shallow coral reef perched on the very edge of the vast Pacific Ocean, the purposefully-constructed ruins of the ancient city of Nan Madol are spread across nearly a 100 artificial islets off the southeastern coast of Temwen Island. Set apart between the main island of Pohnpei by mudflats, these structures on Temwen Island have earned the awe of generations of archaeologists because the islands are made almost entirely of massive stacked rocks that are 5.5 to 7.5 meters high and about 5 meters thick.


Apart from Easter Island, I would conclude there is no other location the South Pacific that exceeds the wonders of this seldom visited site in architectural magnificence. Although it is one of the oldest archaeological sites in the Pacific Basin region, surprisingly it is not featured on any world heritage register or national treasure preservation list.

Perhaps because it presents more questions than answers, mainstream archaeologists avoid recognizing the big questions surrounding Nan Madol. My enthusiasm about its myriad of mysteries must have been recognizable when the producers of the popular History Channel show Ancient Aliens came calling last year, asking me to speak about this mysterious site. My debut on Season Six was suggesting a novel concept about how this megalithic site could have been constructed. Apparently there was enough of a hook: producers went with the title "Aliens and Forbidden Islands."

Two Drastically Different Takes
Over time, but with scant evidence to base their conclusions, historians painted a picture that Nan Madol was the capital of the Saudeleur "Kings" dynasty which came to a climax about 400 years ago. Although habitation on Pohnpei can be established for over 2,000 years, historians surmise the construction of the artificial islets and stone enclosures probably started around the 8th century CE, and concluding abruptly in 1628, yet the locals maintain the structures were in place before they arrived. What's also interesting is there are no examples of this type of megalithic stone construction anywhere else but here.

The native people on Pohnpei maintain a completely different viewpoint. They will tell you the city is haunted, prefer to stay far away from the site, and hold no claim to their ancestors having a hand in its construction. They want nothing to do with the location, save the few intrepid local escorts who will take tourists willing to pay handsomely to have a guide, but only in the daylight. The locals will never go near the site at night. They believe if they spent a night in the "City of Ghosts" as they call it, they would die. The native people feel there are otherworldly powers guarding the archaeological ruins. Some even claim mysterious glowing orbs can be seen flying around the site during the night. Okay, so this can easily be dismissed as superstition, but it is rare to have two such drastically conflicting stories about the origin of a famous location such as this. Usually the local people are quite happy to have a nearby attraction to lure in wealthy tourists.


The Curious will be Punished with Death
There are no written records on the island's history and the legend has been kept alive by word of mouth only. The local practice of keeping secrets is considered sacred and is one of the obstacles to learning more about their past. The local king Nahmwarki made a proclamation saying to all, "to disrupt the holy ground that once belonged to past rulers with supernatural powers would be breaking the law." Time and again, he made it clear that to disturb the hallowed ground that once belonged to the old rulers with supernatural powers meant a legal breach. Time and again tragedy struck those who defied the ban.

Nahmwarki threatened any Western archaeologists with capital punishment should they break the law and dig. Nevertheless, jewelry and other artifacts that were buried with the chiefs were plundered. In 1874, the boat of a Polish anthropologist named Jan Kubary carrying artifacts from Nan Madol was shipwrecked near the Marshall Islands after it departed. Hundreds of crates sank to the bottom of the ocean, and with them went much of Nan Madol's history.

Early in the 20th century the island was under German rule. The governor at the time, Victor Berg, disregarded the royal ban and entered the Venice of the Pacific. Despite having been warned, he opened a sealed tomb coffin of the ancient island rulers. In it he found the skeletal remains of giants measuring two to three meters tall. Upon his arrival back the next morning he said Nan Madol was alive with spiritual activity during that night. There was a wild storm with lightning flashes in the sky and torrential rains pounding down on the island. Governor Victor Berg lay in delirium, and reported hearing the sounds of a conch shell blowing and seeing floating balls of light. A few hours later on that very same morning, on April 30, 1907, Governor Berg mysteriously died. The German physician serving on the island could not determine the cause of death.

The natives were quick to claim it was a curse, and said it proves that supernatural powers guard the City of the Dead. Today's rationale would say he must have died of sunstroke, storm exposure or heat exhaustion contracted while surveying the ruins.

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