Brief history and state of research

The Palauan seat of government, inspired by the American Capitol
The Palauan seat of government, inspired by the American Capitol C. Hartl-Reiter

The discovery of Palau for the European world took place in 1543 by the Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos. He took possession of the islands for Spain. Because of the tricky reef surrounding the islands, there was no Spanish presence in the Palau Islands for centuries. The first intensive contact with the western world developed after the shipwreck of the British ship Antelope in 1783. The British exchanged their firearms and iron tools with the chief of Koror for the temporary right to abode and the support in building a new ship. This gave the local regent significant military superiority in the frequent clashes with other clans. The result was an inadvertent change to the political structure of the central Palau Islands (cf. Krämer 1917: 109). In 1899 the Spaniards sold Palau to the German Empire along with of the remaining Caroline Islands. Only 15 years later, on August 14, 1914, Japan occupied the islands as a mandate of the League of Nations. After the Battle of Peleliu in 1944, Palau fell to the Americans and in it 1947 became a district of the United Nations Pacific Islands Trust Territory. The Republic of Palau was founded on January 1st, 1981. Since 1982 it has been in free association with the United States of America. Palau's independence was formalized on October 1st, 1994 after the ratification of the treaty on free association with the United States of America.

The first systematic research on anthropology and archaeology was carried out during the German colonial rule. Augustin Krämer led the Hamburg South Sea Expedition from 1909 to 1910 and documented numerous aspects of daily life in Palau, such as political organization, social structures, rites, crafts, topography and the environment, and land borders of the various clans. Even today, his records are consulted in landowner disputes.

Krämer is the first to describe the monumental earthworks on the island of Babeldaob in detail. He referred to them as “peculiar stepped mountains” and gives information on the dimensions and shape, and details such as basins or trenches. He differentiates between terraced slopes and so-called "pudding hills", which mainly consist of a crown and a surrounding moat. He considers both horticulture and settlement as possible functions. Krämer was accompanied by his wife Elisabeth, who painted many aquarelles of the stepped hills and other aspects of life in Palau. These are valuable sources of information on the Palauan society in the beginning of the 20th century.

Stepped hills in Ngaraard
Stepped hills in Ngaraard from Krämer 1917, Vol. 1, page 221, Fig. 37

In the last few decades archaeological research in Palau has intensified, on the rock islands (cf Masse 1989; Carucci 1992; Fitzpatrick 2001, 2002a, 2002b, 2003a, 2003b; Fitzpatrick and Boyle 2003; Fitzpatrick et al. 2003; Clark and Wright 2003; Clark 2004; Clark 2005; Clark 2006), as well as on the larger volcanic islands (see Osborne 1966, 1979; Lucking and Parmentier 1990; Liston et al. 1998a, 1998b, 1998c; Clark and Wright 2003; Phear et al. 2003). On Babeldaob large-scale projects were carried out. The construction of the first overland road at the end of the 1990s was accompanied by extensive documentation work and rescue archaeology (Liston 1999; Wickler 2001; Wickler et al. 1998).

Euid Elked earthwork with Ngerbuns el Bad earthwork in the background
Euid Elked earthwork with Ngerbuns el Bad earthwork in the background A. Kühlem

One result of the investigations was a new chronology for the settlement of Palau. Pollen studies show a significant decrease in tree pollen and an increase in grass pollen at around 4500 BP. This is interpreted as the result of large-scale deforestation in favor of horticultural and settlement areas (Athens and Ward 2005: 113; Masse et al. 2006: 127). Between 3300 and 3000 BP first evidence of settlement can be detected on the rock islands as well as on the volcanic islands (Fitzpatrick 2003c; Liston 2005).

According to Liston (2005) and Wickler (2001), the initial settlement was limited to the coastal areas of Babeldaob. Between approx. 2050 BP and 1750 BP, extensive clusters of transformed landscape appear in the interior of the island. Each cluster contains earthworks of monumental dimensions and, according to Liston (2009), defines a socio-political space. Remarkably, monumental earth architecture on Babeldaob appears centuries before anything comparable was built elsewhere Oceania. Around 1200 BP the construction of the earthworks came to an end. At about the same time, use of the rock islands intensified (Masse 1989: 73).

Stone platform on one of the rock islands
Stone platform on one of the rock islands A. Kühlem

The reasons why the large volcanic island of Babeldaob was almost completely abandoned and the population settled on the small, scattered karst islands instead have not yet been explored. It is certain that this brought about profound changes in almost all areas of life. Changes in subsistence, size and form of settlements, and social organization are the result of necessary adaptation to completely different environmental conditions in a confined space with limited resources.

Centuries later, beginning in about 700 BP, the long-abandoned earthworks on Babeldaob were used again. They were repurposed for the construction of extensive stone villages with house platforms, paved paths, and water basins. The horizontal surfaces created centuries earlier offered ideal locations for settlements while extensive taro patches in the valleys and lowlands provided staple food.


Stone village in Ngatpang
Stone village in Ngatpang A. Kühlem

Challenges of an Island Ecosystem
The human factor
The monumental earthworks of Babeldaob
The first contact with the outside world
Brief history and state of research
Open questions
Geoarchaeological and archaeological research
Involvement of the local population
Project data