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Typical fragment of a wall, Lelu Ruins, Kosrae

Coral Tombs Housed Royal Micronesians 700 years ago

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Centuries ago on the island of Kosrae in the central Pacific Ocean, islanders cleaned their deceased kings’ bodies, anointed them and then buried them in temporary coral tombs for three months only to exhume the skeletons later and bury them in a coral reef. The islanders in easternmost Micronesia apparently had a complex society and sophisticated workforce that sharply declined first because of a devastating typhoon and then the arrival of disease with European traders, pirates, missionaries and others.

Scientists have been studying the royal tombs built about 700 years ago and used until the early 1800s, when Christians arrived. They are some of the last structures of the city of Leluh still standing, most of the rest having been destroyed by jungle growth, tides, time and reuse of materials by more recent inhabitants.

The tombs of Kosrae differ from other ancient mortuary monuments in that they are made of once-living material, coral, they were only temporary and their pyramidal shapes didn’t end in an apex.

The tombs of Kosrae differ from other ancient mortuary monuments in that they are made of once-living material, coral, they were only temporary and their pyramidal shapes didn’t end in an apex. (Photographs by Jean Paul Hobbs)

It had been estimated previously, based on examination of remnants of those interred, that islanders built the tombs 300 years later, in the 17 th century. But archaeologists from Australia, Taiwan, China and the United States recently used highly precise analysis of uranium-thorium decay in coral from the tombs to more accurately date when they were built.  

Islanders used coral to build a 3-meter (3.2-yard) seawall, canals, paths, terraces and the floors of 20 other structures, including feasting halls, in the city of Leluh. Some of the coral was fossilized and dates back thousands of years.

The scientists, including a geologist and a zoologist, wrote a new study in the journal Science Advances that says the construction of the tombs differ from many ancient mortuary monuments in two ways—they are built of living things, coral and were used only temporarily. Most ancient tombs were meant to be permanent and were built of rock or clay and are dated by association.

Insrūun is a tomb complex that was destroyed by a typhoon early in the 20th century. Scientists studied three temporary tombs at the Insaru complex, which is still extant.

Insrūun is a tomb complex that was destroyed by a typhoon early in the 20 th century. Scientists studied three temporary tombs at the Insaru complex, which is still extant. ( Science Advances maps)

The tombs differ in another way too. Like tombs in other parts of the world they are pyramidal, but their tops don’t end in an apex. Rather, they are open and accessible from the top. One reason the islanders housed the kings’ remains in the tombs only temporarily was because of limited space on the island.

Historical accounts suggest that the corpse of a Kosraean king, anointed with coconut oil and bound in mats and colored cordage, would have been interred in the saru for up to 3 months. A house was erected over the saru, and all the chiefs mourned and presented offerings to the deceased. After this time, the royal bones were exhumed, cleaned, re-bound, and secondarily buried in a deep hole on the nearby reef. Leluh’s truncated pyramidal tombs were, thus, temporary processing points that served a key function after the death of a high-status individual.—Science Advances journal

For centuries, from at least 1250 AD, Kosrae has been an important landmark for mariners in the Pacific Ocean. Leluh is one of two ancient capitals of eastern Micronesia. It covered 66 acres and had a population of about 1,500 people, including kings, chiefs and the general populace. Leluh had “a complex hierarchical society that developed over the six centuries preceding European contact in the mid-18th century,” the researchers wrote. Today it and the city of Nan Madol on neighboring Pohnpei Island are on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

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“The shared history of these sister ancient capital cities is most apparent in their distinctive architecture—both are sprawling cities of man-made islets, canals, and walled compounds built of prismatic basalt in a header and stretcher style. However, the use of coral in the structures on Leluh is a fundamental difference between these two ancient capitals,” the authors wrote.

To extract and move the amount of coral used to build the tombs and other structures in Leluh suggests a complex society that organized a considerable workforce with sophisticated logistics, the authors wrote. But the island’s population was devastated by a typhoon in the beginning of the 19 th century. Then foreign ships with whalers, traders, pirates, missionaries and castaways arrived and caused more devastation.

Types of coral used to construct the tombs

Types of coral used to construct the tombs (Photographs by Zoe Richards)

“The Kosraen populace could no longer keep up with the continuing demands for the construction and maintenance work on Leluh, and the ancient city fell into disrepair,” the article states. “Contact with Europeans began in 1824 with the arrival of Duperrey’s expedition on board the La Coquille and intensified from the 1830s to 1860s. The rapid population decline due to the introduction of diseases brought by the western arrivals, coupled with the introduction of Christianity, led to a decline of the ancient feudal system and traditional cultural practices.”

The bodies of a man and a dog were found in one of the tombs that were dated from between 1824 to 1850. But the old way of life ended on the island, and the last tokosru or king was forced to abdicate in 1874 and was buried in a Christian cemetery.

Today the population of Kosrae is about 6,600.

Featured image: Typical fragment of a wall, Lelu Ruins, Kosrae, Micronesia ( Wikimedia Commons )

By Mark Miller

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