Rounding out our Kava-eye view of Micronesia is Palau. Palau, like many of these small island nations, has an interesting history. Palau also has a more traditional relationship with kava (which gives here a great relief). Let’s look at Palau today and the events that brought this young nation into being.
Officially known as the Republic of Palau, this tiny island nation is situated 500 miles east of the Philippines, 500 miles north of Indonesia and 750 miles south of Guam. Having emerged from a United Nations Trusteeship administered by the United States in 1994, The Republic of Palau is one of the youngest sovereign nations in the world. It is also one of the smallest, encompassing a mere 177 square miles (or roughly two and half times the size of Washington, D.C.) Palau is made up of sixteen states, found on eight main islands and 250 smaller islands. Although a separate, free-standing entity, the Republic of Palau is part of the Carolina Islands archipelago.
Within these 16 states reside the approximate 20,000 citizens of Palau. About 70% of the population resides in the city of Koror, found on the island of Koror. Koror the economic hub of Palau is the former capital city. This was the case until 2007 when the capital moved north to the city of Ngerulmud located in the state of Melekeok. In Ngerulmud, the Palauan Congress meets. It is set up much like the U.S Congress, being made up of both a House of Representatives and a Senate. Also situated in Ngerulmud is the executive branch, currently run by President Johnson Toribiong and Vice-President Kerai Mariur, and the judicial branch (structured much like the judicial branch of the United States).
Palau and History
The history of Palau is one of great mystery and current archeological debate. For starters, the original settlers to the area may have come from the neighboring Caroline Islands, but more than likely they’ve arrived from Melanesia, Australia, and Asia. Because of this, the Palauan people are not considered classic Micronesians, although geographically they are located in this region. Among the native Palauan population there appear to be two distinct genetic blood lines, one associated with Australians/Papua New Guineans and the other associated with Asian (specifically Indonesian). Both of these genetic lines more closely resemble the residents of Melanesia opposed to Micronesia.
Another debate that rages even today is when these people, whoever they were, first arrived on the shores of Palau. Until recently, there have been two schools of thought concerning the timing of the original settler’s arrival, both backed up by carbon dating (although the legitimacy of either has been argued). This two schools place the original settlers arriving at either 1000BC or 2500 BC. Adding to the confusion is a recent discovery which has thrown the entire Oceanic Archeological community for a loop. This is the discovery of an ancient burial ground. This burial ground is the oldest known burial ground in all of Oceania and disproves both earlier theories.
Another debate centers on the recent discovery of Homo floresiensis in Indonesia. Homo floresiensis was first discovered in caves on Java in 2003. They were a humanoid creature many are calling “Hobbits” due to their small stature. A number of humanoid skeletons bearing many of the characteristics of the Flores Man have also been found in Palau. Coupling this with the oldest burial grounds in all of Oceania has begged the question, was Flores Man the first to immigrate to these islands?
Beyond the debate of who first arrived on the shores, there is also a debate over who were the first European explorers to arrive here. Some believe the Spanish explorer Ruy Lopez de Villalobos would have been the first to sight the shores of Palau in 1543. Although there is no definitive evidence indicating this, it is argued that Captain Ruy would have had to have seen the southern tip of Palau when arriving in the Caroline Islands.
What is known is that in 1783 Captain Henry Wilson of the East Indian Tea Company ran aground in his boat the Antelope. Wrecking on the a reef off the shores of the Palauan island of Ulong, the King of Palau helped to repair Wilson’s ship, restock him with supplies, and sent him on his. Captain Wilson returned to the shores of England with one extra crewmate, Prince Lee Boo of Palau. Unfortunately for the prince, he soon contracted small pox and died. Because of this, the East India Tea Company erected a monument to the late prince in St. Mary’s Churchyard.
Palau and Culture
Although in the past few decades, Palau has adapted to an international economy, Palauans strongly identify with their traditional culture. Several of the traditional ceremonies, such as the omersurch birth ceremony, ocheraol first-house ceremony and the kemeldiil funeral services are widely practiced and the codes and beliefs adopted by Palauan forefathers are still revered today.??Palauan villages were, and still are, organized around 10 clans reckoned matrilineally. A council of chiefs from the 10 ranking clans governed the village, and a parallel council of their female counterparts held a significant advisory role in the division and control of land and money.??Palauans are a highly sociable people. Traditionally, history, lore and knowledge were passed down through the generations orally as there was no written language until the late 1800’s. Palauans still practice that traditional method, and at the end of the day, one can often find pockets of Palauans excitingly engaged in the telling of the stories of the more recent past. Often this takes place in their traditional village gathering place, the Bai house (gabled roof house). These gables were intricately carved and painted, depicting the histories of the various clans that lay claim to the house.
Palau and Kava
Like many of their Micronesian neighbors, Kava was introduced recently as the coral atoll climate is a harsh one where Kava seems to have trouble taking root. Luckily for the Palauns, the introduction of Kava has gone hand in hand with their clan-centric way of life. Many of the major ceremonies, including birthing, marriage, and death ceremonies, now include Kava as an important part of their ritual. Generally held in the Bai house and presided over by both male and female elders, these ceremonies help bond the participants as well as strengthen those bonds within the clan as a whole. And what better glue could you find than a little Kava.