One of the greatest archaeological sites in the world lies off the coast of the remote Micronesian island of Pohnpei, yet the city is largely unknown. The gigantic city of Nan Madol, probably the eighth wonder of the world, continues to baffle archaeologists, and may contain evidence for the lost continent of Mu.
Built out of magnetized basalt crystals, some weighing up to 50 tons, this city contains over 250 million tons of prismatic basalt stacked up in artificial islands and structures over an 11 square mile area. Nan Madol is built onto a coral reef and much of the city is underwater! Natives claim that conventional explanations for the construction do not work and that the methods used include “brute force and magic.”
Many times over the years I have visited the awe-inspiring city with its 40-foot high walls and gone by boat through the spacious ruins. The natives tell us how legend tells them the stones were magically flown through the air to be placed in the city. Today it is a dead city, a city of spirits.
Pohnpei Island (formerly called Ponape) lies about 1600 kilometers northeast of New Guinea, and is the capital of the newly independent Federated States of Micronesia. On the southeast corner of this small volcanic island lies an immense megalithic stone city, 28 square kilometers in size, called Nan Madol. The city is impressive by any standards and even more remarkable when one considers that many of the inhabitants of the island today live in grass huts.
No one knows who built this city, when it was built, how it was built, or why it was built. The bones of humans who are much larger than the Micronesians who live there now have been excavated at Nan Madol.
Nan Madol is one of the real archaeological mysteries of the world. Known as the “Venice of the Pacific” since it was first discovered by Europeans in the early 1800s, the huge stone city is built out onto a coral reef and is intersected by artificial canals. There are 90 to 100 artificial islets in “Nan Madol Central,” an area of approximately 2.5 square kilometers, each created out of giant basalt logs, weighing about 20 tons each. Some of the rocks in the structures on the islets weigh up to 50 tons with walls 30 feet (10 m) high. There are tunnels connecting the larger islands.
Nan Madol is steeped in scientific controversy and legend. The word “Pohn-pei” means “on an altar,” and “Nan-Madol” means “the spaces between,” indicating the canals—or spaces between the artificial islands. One of the first archaeologists to collect data and artifacts at Nan Madol was the German-Pole, Johann Stanislaus Kubary. Kubary had four native wives, whom he kept on different islands in the Carolines. He loaded a ship with precious relics that he had dug up in the 1870s from Nan Madol, but the ship sank somewhere in the Marshall Islands, losing everything. Kubary committed suicide a few years later on Pohnpei when one of his native wives left him for another man. Kubary wrote a valuable early manuscript on the history of Nan Madol which passed to the hands of a native Ponapean family (presumably his wife’s family), who kept it as an heirloom until it was accidentally burned in the 1930s, to be lost forever.
The German archaeologist Dr. Paul Hambruch did some of the best work at Nan Madol at the turn of the century. Much of what is known today comes from Hambruch’s work, and he was the first person to take notice of tales of sunken cities and suggest that a sunken city lay around Nakapw Island, near Nan Madol.
The Japanese administered the islands after World War I, taking them over from the Germans. They did extensive work on the ruins, including the supposed finding of the sunken city and “platinum coffins” (there was never any real indication that these artifacts were coffins, even if they existed). Little is known about the Japanese discoveries at Nan Madol, as most of the records were presumably lost or destroyed in the war.
An incredible account of the discovery of “platinum coffins” is given in the book Der Masslose Ozean (The Measureless Ocean) by Herbert Rittlinger, published in Stuttgart, Germany, 1939. Rittlinger was a German writer who traveled the world and wrote books about his journeys. He was quite well-known in Germany, but none of his books have been translated into English as far as I know. Der Masslose Ozean is about his sojourns and researches into the Pacific. Like many travelers before him, Rittlinger was very intrigued by Nan Madol.
Erich von Daniken quotes from Rittlinger’s book in his Gold of the Gods and says that Rittlinger learned while on Pohnpei that it was a “brilliant and splendid center of a celebrated kingdom that had existed there untold millennia ago. The reports of fabulous wealth had enticed pearl divers and Chinese merchants to investigate the seabed secretly and the divers had all risen from the depths with incredible tales. They had been able to walk on the bottom on well-preserved streets overgrown with mussels and coral. ‘Down below’ there were countless stone vaults, pillars and monoliths. Carved stone tablets hung on the remains of clearly recognizable houses.
“What the pearl divers did not find was discovered by Japanese divers with modern equipment. They confirmed with their finds what the traditional legends of Ponape reported: the vast wealth in precious metals, pearls and bars of silver. The legend says that the corpses rest in the ‘House of the Dead’ (i.e., the main house in the complex). The Japanese divers reported that the dead were buried in watertight platinum coffins. And the divers actually brought bits of platinum to the surface day after day! In fact, the main exports of the island—copra, vanilla, sago and mother of pearl—were supplanted by platinum! Rittlinger says that the Japanese carried on exploiting this platinum until one day two divers did not surface, in spite of their modern equipment. Then the war broke out and the Japanese had to withdraw. He ends the story as follows: “The natives’ stories, encrusted with century-old legends, are probably exaggerated. But the finds of platinum on an island where the rock contains no platinum, were and remain a very real fact.”
The Japanese reportedly did discover very large human bones at Nan Madol, indicating that the previous inhabitants of the island were perhaps as tall as 2.1 meters or 7 feet. An old Pohnpei native told me while I was there that he had found a human femur many years ago in the jungle that was “twice as big as a normal man’s.” This might suggest a rather unbelievable height of 10 feet or so, making the early inhabitants literally giants.
After the war, the sunken city was generally forgotten, and no other work was done on Nan Madol until the early 1960s when an American Smithsonian expedition came to the island to gather some “hard scientific data” on this strange city and to figure out the whole mystery. The Smithsonian carbon-dated some ashes at the bottom of a fire pit, and discovered that they were about 900 years old. They then ascribed a date of A.D. 1000 to the city, and suggested that the basalt rocks used to build the city came from Sokeh’s Rock near the main town of Kolonia.
Writers and historians then generally gave this eleventh-century date as the age of Nan Madol. As all archaeologists know, the date of some ashes in a city does not date the city, and unfortunately, stone cannot be carbon-dated. However, this date did establish that it was at least 900 years old.
In the 1970s, Steve Athens, an archaeologist for the Pacific Studies Institute in Honolulu, Hawaii, began the most extensive work on Nan Madol since the Japanese or possibly even the Germans. He discovered pottery shards in Nan Madol that were dated by thermoluminescence as being at least 2000 years old. This pushes back the date of Nan Madol by more than 1000 years, and raises a lot more questions than it answers.
First of all, pottery was not known to have been used in Pohnpei at any time, and was not used by the natives at the time of the European discovery of the island. Natives were also not known to have had ocean-going canoes at the time of discovery. This evidence, plus the fact that the natives now live in grass huts, and no longer build structures out of rocks weighing 20 to 50 tons, indicates that a regression of culture has taken place on the island. This new date of the pottery suggests that Nan Madol was inhabited at the time of Christ, and it is quite possible that the city is several thousand years older than that.
The entire city is constructed out of blocks of basalt and the island, being man-made, naturally had to be constructed first. Basalt logs were placed on the coral reef, and then the center of the islet filled in with coral. The canals too were presumably cut out of the coral, and then the megalithic walls and structures were built.
From the air, Nan Madol looks like a big mangrove swamp. Over the thousands of years that it has lain there, unused for at least hundreds, mangrove trees and coconut palms have grown among the ruins, the roots tearing down walls, the canopies obscuring any view.
The project is of such scale that it easily compares with the building of the Great Wall of China and the Great Pyramid of Egypt in sheer amounts of stone, labor and the gigantic scope of the edifice. It is also worth noting that the average weight of a stone in the Great Pyramid of Egypt is only three tons; even the construction of this great structure has created a great deal of debate and controversy.
Yet the source of the stone remains a mystery. According to Gene Ashby at the Community College of Micronesia, no one knows where all the stone for the building of Nan Madol came from.
It has been suggested that the stones were moved from quarries by lashing bamboo to them, or placing them on coconut palm rafts, and then floating them to the site. However, two American engineers on Pohnpei told me that it was unlikely that such gigantic blocks could have been floated by raft or bamboo. The island is too mountainous to allow transport overland, and furthermore, these rocks are piled on top of each other to a height of ten meters or more. The largest movable crane on the island to this day can only lift about 35 tons.
Athens also made note of the extensive tunnel network throughout Nan Madol. Tunnel entrances can be found on many of the islets, and though now blocked, they are believed to connect major islands together. These tunnels are presumed by archaeologists to have been used for transportation between islets, yet why such tunnels would have been constructed is a mystery. Perhaps for defense? But if so, from whom?
The main fortress of Nan Dowas, where one can find 50-ton blocks of basalt, has a tunnel that was previously thought to have been a tomb. In 1870 it was twelve meters deeper than it is today, and is blocked by a giant boulder. It is believed that some of these tunnels go beneath the reef and exit underwater to caves that can be seen while diving.
How these tunnels could have been constructed through the coral reef that Nan Madol lies on is unknown.
What is the answer to the mystery of Nan Madol and Madolynym, the “Atlantis of the Pacific”? One theory is that part of Nan Madol was built on a gigantic limestone cavern which later collapsed, sending structures down to the bottom of the harbor. Yet this does not explain how columns would still be standing. Furthermore, nowhere else at Nan Madol are columns used in the construction of any buildings; they are only found underwater.
Another possible explanation is that the entire island has been sinking over the past thousands of years. This might explain how underwater structures are still standing, as well as the now submerged and coral-encrusted square outlines of structures in the coral reef. Yet it does not take into account the local legends.
One hypothesis that makes use of all the data is that of a former continent in the Pacific Ocean. Recently, coal deposits have been found off Rap Iti in French Polynesia, indicating that the Pacific Basin was once “high and dry.” In a cataclysmic upheaval in the remote past, this continent may have been submerged, and the sunken “City of the Gods” to be found on Pohnpei may have been a city of this now-vanished culture.
Of course, this is a radical conclusion, like rewriting ancient history! Yet, perhaps ancient history needs to be rewritten. A major expedition should be sent to Pohnpei equipped with sonar, deep-diving, and core-drilling equipment. The harbor needs to be mapped completely by sonar and all columns and other structures explored carefully with a miniature sub or diving bell. The coral reef needs to have a number of core samples taken, to ascertain what is beneath the solid mass of coral.
I was also told that platforms, similar to those found on Malden Island, had been found at Nan Madol. In the book, Nan Madol: Lost City of the Pacific, (1976) the author, Mr. Ballinger, concludes that Nan Madol was built by Greek sailors before the time of Christ. The Greek sailors were remnants of Alexander the Great’s army in Persia after Alexander was poisoned and his empire started to split up. These sailors, theorized Ballinger, left the Persian Gulf intent on making their own kingdom, and after sailing through Indonesia, settled on Pohnpei, where they built Nan Madol. Harvard professor Barry Fell has a similar theory on the settlement of the Pacific.
It is not a bad theory, fitting better into new findings about Nan Madol than other theories. I was inclined to think of the ancient sun worshippers of the Pacific and their megalithic trading bases throughout the South Pacific. Was Nan Madol built by them? This might make the city three to six thousand years old, the base of ancient sailors from Egypt, India and elsewhere. An ancient city of the Atlantean League?
Yet, did these men, aware of more ancient cultures before them, build their city next to the coral-covered remains of an actual Lemurian city? The thought was staggering. Perhaps I had finally found some evidence of a sunken continent in the Pacific.
Excerpted with permission from Ancient Micronesia & The Lost City of Nan Madol.