By Graham Earnshaw
POHNPEI, Micronesia, Aug 23, Reuter – As you approach by boat, the ruins of the mystery city of Nan Madol peek out of the mangrove swamps, conjuring up thoughts of lost continents, lost civilisations.
The stone city, lying just off the island of Pohnpei in the northern Pacific, is built on artificial islands atop a coral reef.
No one knows for sure when it was built, or when it was evacuated.
Ask who built it, and you’ll hear some fantastic suggestions — the ancient Greeks, the Japanese, the Incas of South America. Or maybe just ancestors of the present-day people on Pohnpei, using skills subsequently forgotten.
It has even been used as evidence for the existence of the lost continent of Mu, which is said to have once covered much of the Pacific and to have supported an advanced civilization before sinking, like the mythical city of Atlantis, into the deep.
Most of Nan Madol is now inaccessible, hidden behind mangroves, canals and jungle that would deter an Indiana Jones.
But archaeologists have mapped out a city more than one km in length and half a km wide, built on more than 100 artificial islands and criss-crossed by canals.
Tens of thousands of elongated stones, weighing up to 50 tonnes each and quarried several km (miles) away, were used in its construction.
The tombs of what were presumed to be kings and high priests have been identified, along with other areas for the rituals of what may have been a religion based on sacred eels.
The people of Pohnpei have their own oral legends about Nan Madol, which speak of two brothers who came from the east and supervised its construction.
“The two brothers, foreigners, came and did the planning and the Pohnpei people were the workers on the project,” said Pohnpei’s most respected historian Masao Hadley.
Where did the brothers come from? “Nobody knows,” he said.
The book “Lost City of Stone”, published in 1978, advanced the theory that Nan Madol was built by ancient Greek sailors who 300 years ago accompanied Alexander the Great to India and continued on east.
Bob Arthur, owner of Pohnpei’s Village Hotel, said his pet theory was that Nan Madol was built by East Asian mariners who had followed the clockwise currents round the Pacific rim to North and South America and to Pohnpei on their way home.
“The idea that lethargic island people would suddenly decide to build something they had never built before using materials and designs they had never used before, and then go back, allowing the jungle to reclaim it, seems unlikely,” he said.
A local guide said he would like to believe his ancestors built the city. But, gazing pensively at a wall of stone logs six meters (yards) high, he added: “It looks Japanese.”
University of Oregon Professor William Ayers, who has been studying Nan Madol for 11 years, said he believed the city was built by ancestors of the modern Pohnpei people without help from the Japanese, South Americans or anyone else.
“Something like that is always possible, but there’s no really close similarity in construction, and it appears more likely to have been an indigenous innovation,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Ayers said it appeared construction of the city began about 1,500 years ago, while the society that built it disappeared for unknown reasons about 500 years ago.
What is clear is that the people of Nan Madol knew nothing of metals, had no writing system and drew no pictures or murals that have survived. They used primitive pottery and tools made of wood and shells.
“(The extent of Nan Madol) suggests a very highly organised society, one where political and religious authority was highly developed,” Ayers said.
“They were able to systematically organise a work force of tremendous proportions and construct something that was extremely important, both religiously and politically,” he added.
Asked if the kings of Nan Madol could have controlled an empire that extended beyond Pohnpei, he said: “I’ve often wondered about that. It seems to me they probably had influence if not direct control over the people on some of the neighbouring islands within 100 or 200 miles (150-300 km) of Pohnpei.”
He said there was no evidence to support theories of Nan Madol being the heart of an empire spanning the Pacific, but that it was a fascinating archaeological site nonetheless.
“There is definitely still a mystery in the sense that we are unable to explain very much of how people actually lived there, what the chiefs and religious specialists there actually did,” he said. “The mystery persists and probably always will.” REUTER GAE MS NNNN