From Chapter 1, “Pacific Petroglyphs in the Room”
As Ronald and I made our way around Pohnpei’s perimeter and its only road toward Madolenihmw, the southeast district of the island, I noticed the effects of the current and highly infrequent drought. The typically lush jungle and canopy of monkeypod trees looked thirsty and confused by the lack of rainfall on an island whose interior receives more than four hundred inches of rain a year. The humidity, man’s foe but the rain forest’s ally, had not subsided one bit.
For fun, the local kids had been lighting matches just to see the normally impossible sight of a brush fire racing through a couple of acres. Consequently, here and there along the road were unusual displays of open space and brown scorched fields and stumps with no vegetation. Fortunately, streams everywhere stopped these fires in their tracks before any serious damage ensued. So no one bothered to put them out.
We passed the village of Sapwalap, parked the car off the road near the Dauen Sapwalap, and shed any unnecessary layers of clothing. We left our air-conditioned oasis, loaded our water and cameras, and headed down the unmarked footpath to the petroglyph site less than a mile away near the Lehdau River. According to legend, both the Dauen Sapwalap and the Lehdau River had been “dug” by the magician Lapoange, with his penis, no less! (The name Lapoange may also appear in the text as Lapone and Laponga.) We were no doubt treading on sacred--or at least fertile--ground.
We made our way to the known petroglyph rock outcrop site, about eighteen feet (five meters) in height, with a gently sloping surface covering almost one hundred square feet (thirty square meters). As mentioned, I had been here many times before, often leading groups to the site, and I would normally start my tour by pointing out the gigantic Takai en Pahsu “vagina” stone.
A Pohnpeian friend and former head of FSM Tourism had called my attention to this smooth anthropomorphic “vagina” fertility stone a few years prior on our way to the outcrop. A precise cavity was chiseled into its eroded upper surface, disrupting its sensual curve (fig. 1.1; plate 1). While inspecting the boulder, he also shared that its mythohistoric origin was connected to the god Lapoange. He explained that it was believed this stone represents Lapoange’s wife’s genitals. Her body had fallen apart when Lapoange turned her into stone and this was the only part remaining.
The megalith called me to touch her, and I wanted to feel her manna, her power (fig. 1.2; plate 2). Afterward, my friend explained that women would touch it to become pregnant. Fortunately, I had no such luck.
Suddenly, I was compelled to eat one of the white ginger blossoms growing nearby. Go figure. This was before aromatherapy was hip. It would be years before I researched why I had eaten the aphrodisiac ylang-ylang spontaneously. Interesting timing--my urge to eat this after touching the fertility stone.
But this time with Ronald . . . something else was different. Was I looking at the same stone I had seen so many times before? Was I disoriented?
No, it wasn’t the stone. It was the jungle around it. Gone. The kids had burned it off (fig. 1.3; plate 3).
I saw for the first time an entire field of huge stones, some at least twelve or fourteen feet high! They had peeked out from the lush vista in the past, but had never revealed their gigantic size or configuration. There were dozens.
Never had I seen this before! Initially Ronald, never having seen the site’s original vegetation, didn’t understand my state of shock. My usual route was to the left fork in the path, to the outcrop, not to the right.
The lack of natural camouflage had revealed a configuration of basalt boulders; megaliths that formed what appeared to be a double circle. Stone circles in the Pacific? No one had ever mentioned anything about this place before. But then how could they? The area had always been choked with vines and underbrush, diminishing their true size and camouflaging their numbers . . . not to mention their other extraordinary secrets.
I wandered about in a daze. Ronald had gone off to one side of the site and was poking around at some vegetation. He yelled at me to come at once and see some kind of a garden. Garden? Who cared? We were discovering a megalithic site and he was going botanist on me?
At his insistence, I joined him but there was no word about greens; it was a trick. He told me to turn around and look to the north.
I was stunned. A huge stone, I mean huge--or should I say this megalithic nineteen-foot phallic rock--was lying on its side (fig. 1.4; plate 4). It was no doubt of a phallic shape and a good match for the female stone near the path. No wonder a fertility theme was associated with the area.
My left brain countered that it could also be a fallen solitary upright, or an ancient sculpture of a turtle or a sea creature deteriorated beyond easy recognition rather than a cyclopean lingam.
Then I saw them.
A Site to Behold
The entire exterior of the fifteen-foot-long megalith was covered with petroglyphs! Incredible. Nothing like the familiar petroglyphs I had been intending to show Ronald. There were more glyphs on this one rock than on the entire outcropping of the well-known rock art site nearby, the one we’d originally been headed toward.
We both rushed to the astonishing rock.
Overload. My mental and emotional circuits were blown. We were being allowed to see what the jungle had hidden all these years.
There were hundreds of shapes and symbols on the phallic rock, some familiar, but the majority not. These new motifs were certainly more complex than the glyphs upon the well-known rock outcrop nearby. Most of the designs were sophisticated, completely unlike the simple yet elegant stick figure petroglyphs found throughout Polynesia. Until this moment of discovery, there were no other known petroglyphs on Pohnpei and exceedingly few in all of Micronesia.
An equilateral cross, outlined twice, caught my initial attention. But there were more of these enveloped crosses; some outlined once, some three times (fig. 1.6, p. 14; plate 5 and fig. 1.7; plate 6). The same symbol was carved in several locations around this rock. The equilateral crosses were much older than the Russian expedition of 1828, or the occupations by Germans in 1865, Spanish from 1887 to 1889, or Japanese from 1914 until the end of World War 2, and therefore not of a western religious nature. My intuition was betting that perhaps some of them even predated Nan Madol and Lapita cultures.
These patterns were not easily assigned to any one particular culture. We saw a whole section of connected shapes and symbols that resembled intricate Mayan motifs. Perhaps their complexity could be a result of layering one stratum of glyphs over another. Another out of place symbol featured a design that called to mind the style of the renowned artist Piet Mondrian, combining lines or rectangles (fig. 1.8; plate 7 and 8).
My mind was reeling. Fortunately, Ronald had enough sense to start taking photos. I followed suit, hoping it would bring me back to Earth.
With Ronald’s ample grip to assist me, I leveraged my way to the top of the “male rock,” about six feet off the ground.
Looking down from the top of the lichen-covered boulder, our feet were surrounded by a maze of abstract circles and shapes. One section of interlocked triangles formed some sort of a grid area evoking a map-like or geodesic feel. The entire surface was enmeshed with unrecognizable marks and motifs.
I focused in on one distinctive pattern, a pyramid or triangular shape with parallel lines dividing it in half. Most southeast Asian, Mexican, Central and South American pyramids have stairs, so that was my first impression. However, it also gave the impression of a runway, Nazca style, as seen from above (fig. 1.9; plate 9).
A boat or canoe-shaped inscription appeared nearby, featuring a cross in a circle (fig. 1.10; plate 10).
Who had made this site and carved over five hundred images in these rocks? When? Why? Again, I sensed its origin predated Nan Madol, whose oral history is accounted for by present-day Pohnpeians. No one had ever spoke to me of these “new” petroglyphs before--no archaeologists, no historic preservation people. No one.
In the months to come, I would speak with the landowners of the site. They were aware of the large stones and their reputation for fertility but gave no special significance to the multitude of strange petroglyphs that covered more than twenty megaliths or boulders on the land they owned. They knew there were some markings, but they seemed of little consequence to them.
Similarly, Emensio Eperiam, my former student from my days with the Peace Corps, current historic preservation officer and board member of our Nan Madol Foundation, was in disbelief about my new findings. This was 1992, prior to any site documentation, and I had to personally escort him to Pohnpaid before he believed me. Once there, he was speechless.