Wildlife

Young Micronesians Explore Nan Madol: A New UNESCO World Heritage Site Located In Their Backyard.

The base of Nan Douwas - the largest megalithic structure at Nan Madol. (Photo by Gordon Herbert)
The base of Nan Douwas – the largest megalithic structure at Nan Madol. (Photo by Gordon Herbert)

Last month, UNESCO officially announced 21 new additions to the World Heritage Sites list. One of these — located on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei — is the ruins of Nan Madol. Once an ancient city and capital of the Saudeleur Dynasty, Nan Madol is comprised of giant megalithic structures that span across a series of over 90 man-made islets.

Nan Madol consists of over 90 man-made islets that are separated by waterways. It is referred to some as the "Venice of the Pacific". (Photo by Pocahontas Moses)
Nan Madol consists of over 90 man-made islets that are separated by waterways. It is referred to some as the “Venice of the Pacific”. (Photo by Pocahontas Moses)

The origins and construction of Nan Madol is, like many other ancient ruins in the world, still shrouded in mystery. Some of the basalt rocks making up the base of the structures weigh upwards of 80-90 tons, yet they have been there for over 1000 years, piled neatly on top of each other.

According to Pohnpeian legend, twin sorcerers Olosohpa and Olosihpa built Nan Madol—a sacred space to worship their gods and the seat of the future Saudeleur Dynasty. These brothers used, what local elders refer to as, “black magic” to move the massive basalt stones from one side of the island to the other. Recent archaeological research confirms that the stones are indeed from a quarry in Sokehs, located more than 40 km away from the ruins. Needless to say, many scientists and researchers of Nan Madol still wonder about the “how” behind these structures.

Carefully placed basalt rock formations make up the structures at Nan Madol. (Photo by Dan Lin)
Carefully placed basalt rock formations make up the structures at Nan Madol. (Photo by Dan Lin)
The edge of Nan Madol, strategically situated on the point of Pohnpei Island that is closest to the reef. (Photo by Zachary Edward)
The edge of Nan Madol, strategically situated on the point of Pohnpei Island that is closest to the reef. (Photo by Zachary Edward)

Celebrating this momentous occasion was a group of local Pohnpeian college students, who took on the responsibility of providing the international community with their own local stories and images of Nan Madol. With support from the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative, these young men and women explored, researched, and wrote stories about this sacred site from their perspective — the perspective of people who carry the legacy of Nan Madol in their DNA.

On the topic of responsibility and indigenous perspective, one of the local storytellers, Erika Billen:

“Where the heck is Micronesia?” I have heard that question more than once in my travels [off island]. Initially, I had no problem with explaining where I was from through the same dialogue over and over—but at this point I am driven to tell everyone where and who we are. I believe that we are a vital part of the world’s history and should be recognized. “Pohnpei met!” This is Pohnpei—where the land unites and identifies us. Nan Madol is part of the fiber in the twisted lines that tie us all together. Come and see the mystery, revel in the beauty of its enigmatic origins. Beauty does not need to be understood here—just admired. After all, this is Pohnpei, the land of beautiful mysteries.

For more stories told through the voices and lenses of the young Pohnpei storytellers, see their Nan Madol Stories page.

The young men and women of Pohnpei who have committed to sharing the story of Nan Madol through their eyes (and lenses). (Photo by Dan Lin)

 

 

 

A photographer and National Geographic Young Explorer, Dan has spent his career trying to better understand the nexus between people in remote regions of the Asia/Pacific and their rapidly changing environment. Dan is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the Associated Press, and the Guardian. He believes firmly in the power of visual storytelling as a vessel for advocacy and awareness, which helps to better inform policy makers. In 2016, Dan started the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative seeking to empower the next generation of storytellers from the Pacific Islands. Additionally, Dan is a crewmember for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Fellow of The Explorers Club, and a member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. He received his Masters Degree from Harvard University
  • Wayne Johnson

    I visited Nan Madol when I was a Peace Corp volunteer in Micronesia back in 1968. It was amazing then, and it is amazing now. Pretty hard to bet to, but worth the trip

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