Age of First Chief's Ancient Tomb Reveals Pacific Islanders Invented New Kind of Society

Age of First Chief's Ancient Tomb Reveals Pacific Islanders Invented New Kind of Society

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New dating on the stone buildings of Nan Madol suggests the ancient coral reef capital in the Pacific Ocean was the earliest among the islands to be ruled by a single chief.

The discovery makes Nan Madol a key locale for studying how ancient human societies evolved from simple societies to more complex societies, said archaeologist Mark D. McCoy, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. McCoy led the discovery team.

McCoy deployed uranium series dating to determine that when the tomb was built it was one-of-a-kind, making it the first monumental scaled burial site on the remote islands of the Pacific.

The discovery enables archaeologists to study more precisely how societies transform to more and more complex and hierarchical systems, said McCoy, an expert in landscape archaeology and monumental architecture and ideology in the Pacific Islands.

"The kind of society that we live in today, it wasn't born last year, or even 100 years ago," McCoy said. "It has its roots in a pre-modern era like Nan Madol where you have a king or chief. These islanders invented a new kind of society -- that is a socially creative achievement. The idea of chiefs, someone in charge, is not a new thing, but it's an extremely important precursor. We know tribes and bands predate chiefdoms and states. But it's not a straight line. By looking at these intermediate stages we get insight into that social phenomenon."

The analysis is the first-time uranium-thorium series dating, which is significantly more precise than previously used radiocarbon dating, was deployed to calculate the age of the stone buildings that make up the famous site of Nan Madol (pronounced Nehn Muh-DOLL) -- the former capital of the island of Pohnpei.

"The thing that makes this case special is Nan Madol happened in isolation, it happened very recently, and we have multiple lines of evidence, including oral histories to support the analysis," McCoy said. "And because it's an island we can be much more specific about the natural resources, the population, all the things that are more difficult when people are on a continent and all connected. So we can understand it with a lot more precision."

Nan Madol, which UNESCO this year named a World Heritage Site, was previously dated as being established in A.D. 1300. McCoy's team narrowed that to just a 20-year window more than 100 years earlier, from 1180 to 1200.

The ancient city of Nan Madol was built atop a coral reef.

The ancient city of Nan Madol was built atop a coral reef. © Adam Thompson / UNESCO

The finding pushes back even earlier the establishment of the powerful dynasty of Saudeleur chiefs who asserted authority over the island society for more than 1,000 years.

First Chief was Buried in Pohnpei Tomb by 1200 AD

An ancient city built atop a coral reef, Nan Madol has been uninhabited for centuries now. Located in the northwestern Pacific on the remote island of Pohnpei, it's accessible via a 10-hour flight from Hawaii interspersed with short hops from atoll to atoll, including a stop at a U.S. military installation. Nan Madol is the largest archaeological site in Micronesia, a group of islands in the Caroline Archipelago of Oceania.

Uranium dating indicates that by 1180, massive stones were being transported from a volcanic plug on the opposite side of the island for construction of the tomb. And by 1200, the burial vault had its first internment, the island's chief. Manipulate two 3D models of the burial monument, one with foliage and one without, at https://skfb.ly/StXA and https://skfb.ly/S9LF.

Construction of monumental buildings followed over the next several centuries on other islands not in the Saudeleur Dynasty across Oceania.

McCoy, an associate professor in the SMU Department of Anthropology, and his team reported their discovery in the journal Quaternary Research in "Earliest direct evidence of monument building at the archaeological site of Nan Madol identified using 230Th/U coral dating and geochemical sourcing of megalithic architectural stone."

Co-authors include Helen A. Alderson, University of Cambridge, U.K., Richard Hemi, University of Otago, New Zealand, Hai Cheng, Xi'an Jiaotong University, China, and R. Lawrence Edwards, University of Minnesota.

An inactive volcano that hasn't erupted in at least one million years, Pohnpei Island is much larger than its neighboring atolls at 128 square miles (334 square kilometers), making it about the physical size of Columbia, S.C.

Now part of the 607-island nation of the Federated States of Micronesia, Pohnpei Island and its nearby atolls have a population of 34,000.

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