The “Mystery Skulls of Palau” on the National Geographic Channel, Monday, March 17th at 10 PM

I accidentally forgot to leave out some very critical drama surrounding the Palau findings that I just reported on. Next Monday, March 17th 2008, the National Geographic Channel will be running a documentary titled, “Mystery Skulls of Palau.” The National Geographic Channel is funded by the National Geographic Society, the very group that Lee Berger sought out to fund the excavation of the Palau fossils after he discovered them.

Rex Dalton, of Nature News, has looked into this issue a bit more. Dalton, if you don’t know, has been reporting for Nature News on paleontology, anthropology and the like for almost ten years. He’s also specialized in figuring out scientific misconduct. In his report on the Palau findings, “Pacific ‘dwarf’ bones cause controversy,” Dalton’s covers most of the basics that is running in the press but he’s also got some juicy bits about how Berger’s irked some government officials in Palau.

“The new claim was first disclosed in a commercial movie produced by the National Geographic Society, which partially funded Berger’s work. Although the movie is not scheduled for broadcast in the United States until 17 March, it was shown in Asia on 1 March, before the journal publication, drawing criticism.

In Palau, some officials and traditional leaders are concerned that sacred burial sites were exploited for movie-making rather than scientific purposes. Adalbert Eledui, the state resource manager who oversees the region, describes the movie as “unscientific” and says he should have had notice before it was broadcast to protect the sites from an expected influx of visitors. Now, he says, resource managers may need to build cages to restrict access to the caves….

…Most of the island’s chiefs had never visited the caves before last week, because Palauans typically avoid burial sites. Palau’s paramount chief Yutaka Gibbons told Nature that he had heard about the bones from people talking in a restaurant about the movie. “This shows disrespect to our people, country and laws,” he says. “Before they did anything, they should have sat with us.” Berger says he believed that traditional leaders had been briefed on his work in the caves.”

Seems like this is unfolding into a perfect example of how to not conduct paleoanthropological research in another country. I just don’t get it how anthropologists, people trained in the study of humans, can often disregard notifying officials and representatives of the government about what is ultimately their fossils. It seems common courtesy to inform Palauans with a simple memo,

“Hey, we found some interesting bones in your backyard. You may wanna know about it. Can we work together with you on this?”

I can only speculate that the story behind the Palau findings went something like this… Berger was kayaking around these Micronesian islands and stumbled upon these findings. He saw an opportunity, and he sought out a big institution with big money to fund his work. The National Geographic Society of course, didn’t hesitate to fund Berger. They would love to make some sensational headlines, especially if these 25 or so individuals were hobbits like Flores. The Society mobilized to make a documentary out of this and all along the people of Palau were left out of the loop.

This isn’t the first time that the National Geographic Society has been entangled in a mess like this. I can think of the drama surrounding the hasty excavation of Selam as one of the more prominent examples of when external interests pushed aside doing good science. Also, the questionable dating of Omo I and II, funded also by the Society is ill-received by many. In this situation, as outlined by the quotes from chieftains and Palauan government officials, critical information wasn’t passed down to the people who these bones belong too.

Tim White shared a comment about this problem in Dalton’s writeup,

“This looks like a classic example of what can go wrong when science and the review process are driven by popular media.”

To which Berger defended,

“he didn’t know the movie was scheduled to premiere before the journal report came out.”

Bollocks. I don’t buy it. It is no secret that Berger was bed fellows with the National Geographic Society in getting these bones out of the ground, so why didn’t he nor the Society tell Palauans about this? It seems awfully hegemonic and disrespectful to not give the people of Palau a bit of a heads up! Don’t you think?

33 thoughts on “The “Mystery Skulls of Palau” on the National Geographic Channel, Monday, March 17th at 10 PM

  1. Thanks for pointing that out, as it certainly adds a new dimension to the entire story.

  2. In defense of Berger, he hasn’t desecrated any graves. He hasn’t robbed any fossils. He is simply making information that belongs to the whole human race available to as many people as possible. What is wrong with making a movie as a means to spread this information?

    The Palauans have 1500 years to dig this out themselves, and now that someone else does it suddenly its “their” fossils. Rather than being upset, they should be happy that they have the benefit of this.

    These remains are not “Palauans”, but an earlier race that arrived there independently.

    What seems to be at issue is that some Goverenment offical would have been happier to have some of the pie cut his way for his obviously vital contribution to the process.

    This is shades of Ethiopia. Next moment they will lock away the bones and charge for access to them.

  3. Philip,

    There is no problem with making a movie to spread this information. The problem is that the documentary was released prior to the original publication being released.

    You may not see it as a problem, but the National Geographic Society did not acknowledge the PLoS embargo when it released the documentary in Asia before the paper was published online. The PLoS embargo policy states,

    “This embargo policy serves scientists, journalists, and the public by ensuring that the research article is available to all at the time in which it is reported on in the media. The policy also provides for fair and equal access to our content, ensuring that no one reporter or organization receives preferential treatment or advantage over any other.”

    On your comment about Berger making these bones available to as many people as possible, they are inherently Palauan. Also, he and the Society clearly didn’t make these bones available to Palauans… so what makes you think they have the interests of the entire world in mind?

    As much as I would like all remains of human ancestors be available to everyone, we can’t be ignorant about the fact that they were found on the Palau’s sovereign territory. Furthermore, with a low end radiocarbon date of 1,410 years ago for these bones, we’re not talking about a long long time ago. Some of these remains are people’s ancestors and these people may not want the remains disturbed. Berger and crew shoulda consulted with the chieftans and community leaders before disturbing them.

    Thanks for the comment,


    1. I appreciate the empathy to the Chad er a Belau concerning the bones found in the Chelebacheb of Palau. I agree that any scientist who finds an archaeological site in a foreign country should have the common sense and decency to just simply inform the government, chiefs and people of his find and ask for permission to excavate and study the bones.
      We are a very friendly people but it is true that we don’t like going near sacred burial grounds. I am also a western thinker and I am very curious about these bones and want to know more about those people. Perhaps they were my ancestors. Perhaps they were related to my ancestors. Perhaps my ancestors killed them off or perhaps they married into the greater population of the ancestors of present Palauans.

      I was very excited to see the debut on TV on NSChannel but when the time came, the program ran a brief ad and then skipped. On the website the program changed and I never did get to see the program.

      Anyway, thank you all for your very commonsensical responses that generally agree with what my reaction would have been. “‘Akke!’ You stumbled upon a sacred burial ground and talked to National Geographic without consulting us? How rude and disrespectful. ‘Ng meral diak el llechuul.’ Scientists are smart people but can lack regard for other humans and their culture. Anthropologists of all people. This amazes me ‘Ng meral mengasireng’ ”


    2. To Kambiz
      These remains are most definitely not the remains of the ancestors of the people of Palau. The remains are morphologically different to modern humans in very distinct and pronounced ways, to claim that these are the ancestors of modern Palauans is a massive insult to the Palauan people.
      To claim that Palauans are not homo sapiens sapiens, but an entirely unique species isn’t just ridiculous it’s hugely insulting, or are you suggesting that Palauans are the result of hybridization with this species of miniature human?
      Fertile inter-species hybrids can and do occur in nature, but the people of Palau are morphologically no different to humans elsewhere, so this seems extremely unlikely.

      These creatures weren’t just miniature humans. They had a pronounced brow ridge much like a chimp and facial features that are more like those of a bonobo ape than a modern human.

      There seems to be some confusion on here about the fact that these bones are not even from our own species. As such, excavating these bones is not “desecrating the remains of the people of Palau’s ancestors”. It should be viewed no differently to the excavation of any other species of animal. These are human remains, but they are not the remains of homo sapiens sapiens, which is what makes them worth excavating in the first place.

      These are nobodies ancestors. Yes it was wrong and unintelligent for the documentary to be aired before the findings were officially published, and the local people should have been given more detailed information on the nature and extent of the excavations. But they WERE notified that excavations were taking place and even given information regarding the locations where these excavations were taking place.

      The fact that these fascinating findings have generated a lot of publicity and given a lot of people a desire to explore the caves in question is not surprising. Taking measures to preserve these sites(by putting bars or cages over the cave entrances) is something that the local government should have done BEFORE people started climbing around in there messing about, which was the inevitable result of the publicity.

      The slow pace at which the local government reacted to the influx of visitors to the sites after the movie aired is the worst part of the entire situation, not the fact that many local people were not informed by their government about the excavations.

      Local people upset by the fact that they found out about the discoveries from people who had seen the movie have nobody to blame other than their own government, which knew what was going on and chose not to make it public knowledge that there were scientists digging up bones of a new species of great-ape.

  4. I agree with Kambiz. Asking the people involved would have been far more diplomatic and right. The remains belong to the sovereign territory in which they are found, if not to individuals or groups still dwelling, and subject to, that territory. It remains to be detertimned how biologically related to the current populace these finds were. Whether or not that is true still gives no outside person or organization the right to access materials inside a sovereign territory without notification and permission of that territory. This goes way beyond science. The west has a long history of doing this in many different arenas.

    You never know…the Palauans might have agreed to allow the dig. This whole thing reaks of impatience, which is not practical nor bebeficial in science and politics.

  5. This blog item seems hasty to judge Berger and National Geographic on the basis of Rex Dalton’s report for Nature News. It is true that he specializes in covering scientific misconduct, but in my experience with Dalton, which began with the “Archaeoraptor” fiasco some years ago, I’ve found that he ignores the facts in favor of telling a good story.

    In this case, I have personal, firsthand knowledge of Berger’s activities and have been following Berger and this story since he first came to National Geographic asking for funding in 2005.

    I can tell you that Berger did everything right. When he thought he had stumbled upon something significant, he left it all in place, and went directly to authorities and arranged for the sites to recieve extra protection and for permits to return later with a proper multidisciplinary scientific team that included Palauans. I remember specifically that when I visited Palau in the summer of 2005 that the first thing Berger did, the day before I arrived, was to contact a tribal leader and then other officials. Berger surely thought he had covered all the bases. The fact that Dalton was able to find a disgruntled tribal leader who had been left out is not a surprise.

    I’d like to add that Berger operates in southern Africa and is well aware of the sensitivities of working with a variety of cultures. It is unfair to assume that he charges around with some imperialistic attitude.

    The airing of the TV program overseas is regrettable. Berger is being truthful when he says he did not know. He heard it first from Dalton! All of us here at National Geographic headquarters, where we had been waiting for the PLoSOne embargo to lift (which was supposed to be tonight), were just as shocked. It is ironic that it was the Nature News article, not the overseas airing of the show, that forced PLoSOne to lift the embargo a full day before they had wanted to publish Berger’s paper. Was it right for Nature, a competitor to PLoSOne, to force the online journal to rush ahead of schedule?

    When we looked into the premature airing, it turned out to be human error—a connection that was not made. If you want to crucify National Geographic for that, fine, but I’m afraid that such mistakes go with the territory of being one the world’s largest non-profit educational institutions.

    Yes, that’s right. We fund science and education. Millions of dollars are granted each year through a wide spectrum of programs. Most of them you never hear about. And some, like Berger’s project, bubble to the surface as headline makers. And guess what? The more interesting stories we tell, the more money comes into the Society and the more science we can fund. So, do we like headlines? Yes. Do we push scientists to rush into print? No. Do we ask anyone to rush the review process? No.

    And finally, what on Earth are you talking about regarding the A. afarensis baby and the re-dating of the Omo specimens by Fleagle, et al? These projects were totally under the control of scientists and Ethiopian authorities.

    If you want to be better informed on this, see the National Geographic news article at:

    or my blog at:

  6. Chris,

    Thanks for the comment. I admit this post has been heavily influenced by Rex Dalton’s Nature News piece. But I must contest your primary argument, it is kinda hard to point the finger of blame at Nature for breaking the embargo when the National Geographic Society aired the documentary 10 days ago!

    Furthermore, I’m a bit confused with the story reported in the press and when you’ve mentioned Berger solicited the Society to get funding. According to the press, Berger stumbled upon these findings in 2006 but you mentioned he asked for funding in 2005? What’s up with that? When exactly did Berger find the bones? In 2005 like you implied, before you visited Palau, or 2006 on his kayaking trip?

    You also mention that Berger did everything right and notified officials. So why then did the state resource manager, Adalbert Eledui, tell Dalton he had to scramble to protect the sites? He’s acknowledged in the PLoS One paper, but there’s obviously some miscommunication if Dalton was able to get that quote from him. There’s something fishy going on here!

    Again you mentioned Berger did everything right, such as assembling a ‘proper multidisciplinary scientific team.’ From what I can see, the proper multidisciplinary team included three other white people from institutions in the United States. The authors thank the Belau National Museum for helping with preparatory and data collection assistance. Why weren’t they considered as authors?

    That’s something that is almost always considered within the inner core of the authors. But if Berger did everything right, and had the best interest of Palauans, Palauans shoulda be included in the authorship. In conducting fieldwork in another country, actually contributing and building a scientific infrastructure, it isn’t enough to just invite some people to prepare specimens and do some measurements. Rather, training people in properly surveying and excavating remains, curating the specimens, conducting thorough research, and writing up the findings is the right way to go about doing it. I mean give them some damn ownership over their bones!

    Since you’re curious about Dikika and the re-dating of Omo, I’ll write up a post on what I consider hastily done science in the interest of meeting the National Geographic’s deadlines later this week.

    Anyways, thanks for your comment. I’ll really appreciate some clarification about exactly when the bones were found, why Eledui’s not happy with how things were conducted, and the extent of Palauan academic involvement in this project.


  7. Chris,

    You can’t so blithely dismiss some of the criticism of the Berger ‘discovery’ nor, by extension, the complicity of National Geographic in this matter.

    Leaving aside the arguments of cultural imperialism, your suggestion that somehow Nature is to be blamed for ‘breaking an embargo’ is breathtaking. All Nature did was report, more than week after the event, that it was in fact a commercial partner of NG that had released details of the Berger report. You claim the Nature report forced Berger to bring publication forward– even though this was more than a week AFTER National Geographic Asia had first broadcast its embargo-busting program. Ridiculous and a sorry attempt at blame shifting. May I ask what anyone at NG was doing about this blatant error in the intervening period? Perhaps you didn’t even know about it, which given its presence on the NG Asia web site shows an alarming lack of awareness.

    To answer your question: Yes, it was absolutely right of Nature to report this matter. Anything less would have been a complete lack of journalistic integrity, something NG was once known for. Talk about shooting the messenger!

    Furthermore, you fail to address a significant issue that is beginning to cloud a lot science these days- especially what you refer to as ‘headline’ grabbing. As Kambiz so helpfully shows, what are we to make of the NG deal with Berger that so flagrantly breaches the policy of the very journals that berger was publishing in? As PloS puts it, its policy is designed to “provides for fair and equal access to our content, ensuring that no one reporter or organization receives preferential treatment or advantage over any other.”

    Clearly this was not the case. The Society and its News Limited owned television partners have clearly condoned a pre-release deal that contradicts with this policy. No one cares enough to even respect a release date, let alone allowing open and fair access to the research.

    This is not the first time NG has participated in such a deal. However it is the first time to my knowledge it has been revealed as willfully disrespecting the policies of a reputable scientific publisher. Your stated justification for this is that it is necessary for “ensuring more money comes into the Society.” That is a very poor reflection on your moral culture. Sounds more like News Limited to me.


  8. first off, lets not let emotion ruin the science…. the initial report was pretty unbiased and actually stated “this seems like one of the more significant paleoanthropological finds for 2008.” Which was followed up with the “I accidentally forgot to leave out some very critical drama surrounding the Palau findings that I just reported on” load of bullocks which was obviously based on someones emotion and not scientific evidence.

    Get the facts straight: the find was 2006, I am sure the 20o5 date given by Chris was an honest mistake.

    Palauans were informed, and were on the original team…. obviously not every single Palauan could be notified so it is not a shock to find one chief who had no clue.

    Paluans were on the list of authors for the article and asked that they be removed for their own political reasons….

    The only error was the release in the Asian market before the embargo was lifted, most unfortunate….but it has led to remarkable press coverage…..

    The bottom line is it is science, and a pretty amazing find…. check your egos at the door and get on with the analysis and hopefully future work at the sites….

  9. Kambiz,

    I don’t want to harp on the point of “Ownership of the damn bones” too much, because you are right these are not 100 000 years old and at young ages cultural issues may get involved. We don’t want scientists running around digging up cadavers. The corollary of young age is that it is unlikely that 2000 year old bones are destined to make that much of an impact on our view of human evolution, so lets not start thinking we have the Taung Skull here.

    However, the question of who “owns” hominid fossils is a prickly one for me. Palau is small cheese my real arguments are with the South African and Ethiopian, “gardians”, who wnat to take years before releasing information tothe community. I think that its great that Palau has its day in the sun and right now you should thank Berger and NG for that. I am more concerned about the heavyweight sites found in Africa.

    I come from the Open Source software world and the idea of embargoes on information and restricted releases are an anathema to me. The Internet is there to ensure instant delivery. Notwithstanding the obvious restrictions of international law, surely ethically we all have equal claims to artifacts of Human Origins. Guardians can preserve their physical presence, but there should be no restriction on access to the information coming from these artifacts, either in time, detail or scope of opinion.

    I simply have no idea how the making or showing of a movie has anything to do with the officials of a country, similarly why it is in any way obligated to develop regional science. NG are not financing local development they are financing Berger, as is their right. Regional science is obligated to develop itself. Like You had 2000 years to go looking on you Island, now start digging around those burial sites that few Palauans visit, you never know what may turn up. In the afternoons go kayaking.

  10. Frodo,

    You speak as if you have authority on the matter and yet you don’t give us a source to confirm many of your facts. For example, where are you getting this?

    “Paluans were on the list of authors for the article and asked that they be removed for their own political reasons….”

    I’m curious to know why they asked to be removed? I wouldn’t wanna be removed from authorship of such a paper, especially if I contributed work and research to a study. I would wanna be removed if I believe there was ulterior motives involved though. Anyways, some more information, perhaps a source where you got this information, would make your “fact” more believable.

    If anyone is to check their egos at their door it should be you. You don’t provide us with any substantial information, and ask us to just look at the science. We’re inquisitive, we wanna know why some Palauans aren’t happy and why the documentary was released prior to the paper.

    Paleoanthropology is not just about the science. We don’t care just about the bones and the measurements. Sure, the bones and fossils make up a lot of why we’re drawn into the science, but we’re also concerned with the people associated with doing the science. The researchers aren’t alone in this picture, the entire socio-cultural framework needs to be considered when doing paleoanthropological research, because it is ultimately their land, their ancestors, and their identity we’re taking advantage of to do such a study.


  11. Hi Philip,

    Thanks for responding. In regards to South African and Ethiopian “guardians” of human fossils. I know from first hand experience that researchers, the government, and the general associated populous do not want to take years before releasing information to the community. We’ve all got hominid fever in that regard. I salivate at the very thought of finding a new hominin fossil. But, I and many researchers want to do good science, and that takes precedence over getting them out of the ground and into museums. That’s why it often takes years before a fossil ultimately publicized.

    Much of why many people have lost their patience with how long its has taken for information about fossils to emerge is because of the nature of doing field work in foreign countries. First and foremost, paleoanthropologists, don’t have indefinite amounts of time to go find, recover, and study fossils. The have a couple months, maybe they take off a term from teaching or they do their fieldwork during the summer.

    In the field, if they are lucky and good at targeting fossiliferous outcrops, they find a fossil of a human ancestor. It is then works slows to a craw. Getting the fossil out as complete as it is in the ground is the primary objective. Individual pebbles are moved one by one from the vicinity. The fossil is recovered meticulously and literally the whole hill the fossil came from is sieved multiple times over to make sure missing pieces aren’t lost.

    That being said, maybe the entire fossil is recovered during that season. Sometimes it isn’t and the researcher must spend other field seasons continuing the work. Because of obligations, many can’t just extend their work and stick around to finalize the excavation.

    This is just the story behind excavation. It can take a long time to take even the smallest fragment out of the ground. Next comes transportation to a lab, or a museum to clean up the fossils. Again, due to time constraints, people have short windows of time where they can wash the bones, remove any hard matrix from the fossils, and begin to glue and reassemble fragments. If the bones are extremely fragile and brittle, this can take months.

    Many rules and regulations have been setup where researchers aren’t allowed to take the bones out of the country where they were found. Even if they are 100,000 years old or 3 million years old, these fossils are a natural resource of the country they came from. Just like the United States doesn’t let other countries to come over and drill out oil from Alaska, fossil bearing countries don’t let people remove the bones.

    Once all of this is done, comes the actual curation and research of the fossils. This itself can take a long time, and once the research is done and the write-up is finalized, the publishing journal can sit on it for a couple months until it comes out.

    If you want to see a flow chart of how paleoanthropological research is done, I suggest you check out this Flash animation provided by the Human Evolution Research Center. It provides a visual representation, and a much more tangible pipeline, than my drawn out wordy response.

    In regards to your concern about how the making or showing of a movie has anything to do with the officials of a country. Let me explain again that aside from the responsibility of officials and the government to protect the best interests of its people, culture, heritage, and beliefs, it also has to protect its resources. In this particular case, releasing a documentary that blatantly gives the location of caves where they are found and how thousands of bones are there, the government of Palau seems like it needed more time to protect this research from looters and the like.

    Furthermore, the financiers need to be financing local development. Berger needs the money to conduct his research, but these are Palau’s resources, these are bones of Palauan ancestors. International science is obligated to develop regional science, it is not ethical to act on this mentality,

    “Hey thank you very much for your excellent bones, we appreciate that you’ve kept them so well. We’ll study them and generate revenue for ourselves in the form of documentaries with advertisements. You can go figure out how to do science by yourself.”


  12. Frodo Baggins on March 11 has it all right. Sorry to create confusion by saying the discovery was in 2005.

    My understanding from Berger on the issue of Palauans not being on the paper is that it had to do with conflicts of interest and legal matters and was exclusively a Palauan decision.

    Regarding the embargo issue, I reiterate that there was no conspiracy to pre-release the film. It was human error.

    Finally, I agree with Frodo that there is much work to be done and it will be interesting to see how that work proceeds.

  13. I was the photographer for National Geographic working in the field with Lee Berger on the Palau story and I think I should weigh in on Berger’s conduct in the field.

    The science is of course debatable. That is the whole point
    of scientific inquiry.

    But how Lee conducted himself with the Palauans is not open for
    debate. He sought and received ever permission and permit possible. I
    sat in meetings with Lee and the governor of Koro State held before he
    and the team began excavations and listened to Lee ask permission to
    go into the field. I saw him receive permits from the department of
    culture and anthropology. There was always a Palauan state
    archeologist present on the dig. I’ve been in the field with many, many
    archeologists and anthropologists and Berger was by far the most
    thoughtful in terms of respect for the local government and people.

    Then notion that the bones are somehow being kept from the scientific
    world is ludicrous. They are in the Palau National Museum under the
    care of the Palau government.

  14. The Koror State official has a point about the cages because you have to understand that tourism is big business in Palau. The tourist market is split (fiercely) between hard core scuba divers from U.S.A., Australia, Europe, and Japan and mass tourists (non-diving, and mostly non-swimming) from Taiwan. The non-diving tour operators have a limited range of places to take folks, so a macabre display of bones would suit them fine. There is a real risk of exploitation. As far as the traditional leaders not being informed, this is a respect thing in the Palauan culture. The traditional powers in Palau are waning with the onslaught of outside influences. This may be a good or bad thing, but those leaders at least like to be informed about what’s going on. While secretly criticized by Palauans for a lack of formal education or abusing chiefly positions for personal enrichment, as a whole, Palauans respect the chiefs. As far as the documentarian, let’s not burn him at the stake. Palau is a cesspool of rumor and innuendo, and the foreigner is the easiest to blame. He could have done everything right, but now the “collective memory” recalls otherwise through some sort of groupthink revisionism. Palau is not a PC-place, by their own choice. Don’t apply upper middle class PC standards to the island. This new information would have never come to light, but for the work of the documentarian.

  15. reply to Chris Sloan, NGS

    Chris, nice one. You completely ignore the issue I raised–buying access to science ‘to make money’ (your term) in flagrant breach of the publishing standards of the scientific journal that reported the Berger finds. Your silence speaks volumes. Do you still continue to assert Rex Dalton and Nature were somehow the ones at fault in reporting on this breach of ethical standards by NGS. Would NGS be prepared to enter into such commerical arrangements again?

    Fairly straightforward questions that might deserve a reply.


    How arrogant you are and HOW DARE YOU!

    How do you know for sure they are NOT my ancestors anyway? DNA TESTING? Last I checked, we all came from the BIG BANG THEORY or the CREATION THEORY– we’re all related then, right? So whatever bones you find on my island must be closely related to me rather than you & the rest of the world, no? I would assume so. Although, we’d need more science to prove my theory, right?!

    Anyhow, many Palauans KNEW that the bones were there, but did not move them because they were once people like you and I — respect must be given regardless of YOUR Western Scienc & how an individual was buried. It’s sad how some scientists (or explorers, if you will) like to make a name for themselves DISCOVERING what already has been KNOWN for so many years by the indigenous.

    Just so you all know:


    Whatever is found there BELONGS TO THE PALAUANS — regardless of YOUR science!

    And so what if we were to lock them up and never let you see them again? Go find other places to dig up, desecrate, and make a name for yourselves. Hawaii is a good place. Most of their indigenous have been wasted away — no one will bother you as much.

    So, the movie you all were discussing? Where’s the benefits? What benefits? You mean more tourists to come see our blue waters — to spend money at our hotels and trample our corals? More people to come and DISCOVER something and call it their own or the WORLD’S?

    You can come visit really, it’s no big deal. Come take pictures, enjoy the solitude, just respect us as the indigenous, and give us what we are due if you decide to DISCOVER something that the REST OF THE WORLD SHOULD KNOW OF!

    1. Mokokau ra ikal tekingem ngdi ng ngar er ngii a klemerang er a omolekoi er a ngii. (There is truth in this message but fired by the emotions of a true Palauan who is very proud of his/her ancestry and culture and probably only wants to protect his/her identity. Who are we anyway if we don’t know where or who we come from. Respect is the highest law. You can love and abide, but to do that you have to re spectare)

  17. If they were as tiny as the Flores ‘Hobbits’, it’s damn unlikely they were your ancestors, Palauan.

    1. I can see where that statement can make sense but logically it can also not make any sense at all. We are Palauan, “Mathilda37”, so bones found in Belau can be logically related to modern Palauans.

  18. To Copeman: In Palauan culture and most islands in Micronesia you don’t go digging up burial sites. When you enter islands in Micronesia, you are a guest, a visitor. In Palau, every piece of land is either owned by a clan, person or the government. In the custom before you trespass into someones land even if taking a shortcut to get to where you are going, you ask permission. It’s not that we claim the bones, who wants bones?? As a Palauan I would think the reason my people were upset is it could of been someones ancestor or someones land. Some places in palau may look like jungle areas but believe me, if it doesn’t belong to a clan or someone, it belongs to the state or government. There’s not a piece of land in Palau not owned by someone. I would be upset if someone came on my land and started digging without my permission no matter what their reason was. If the government in Palau has no right to go on someone’s land without their permission, what makes you think anyone else can?

    1. Aika meral tekoi. I have heard they got every permit possible. But who knows who is telling the truth here. Who knows who was paid to say what. Who knows? All I know is that Palau is a very small place and news travels very fast. Confidentiality is a western thing. In Palau even the most secret things are public knowledge. We share everything. We share food, money, homes, culture, embarrassments, achievements. Having said that, news of the findings and of the permit attainment would have spread like rampant fire through the island. This did not happen. It was small talk because of a TV show.

      Bones are exciting. Get this. There was a potshard found in Melekeok. One little shard of clay that was made of Melekeok clay and dated to 2000-3000 BC. I couldn’t tell you if that was accurate or not but the point is that news was everywhere in the ’90s when that was discovered. So you’d think that ‘finding’ bones would create something a little bit more significant than a quiet rumor.

      What really matters I think is that the sanctity of the site be kept. Uneducated and possibly destructive tourists should be kept out. Scientist should be escorted to make sure they are following traditional laws. The knowledge gained be made public for anyone interested to learn. The artifacts preserved for posterity. And the site left sacred.

      I’d probably get a few rolled eyes when the sanctity of the site is mentioned. It is what we make it. We make it sacred, therefore it is. It can not be dismissed.

      Thank you to all who are concerned. Thank you to National Geographic Society, despite its many shortcomings, I believe its a worthwhile cause with more accomplishments than downfalls. To the people who do the grunt work: You rock.

  19. P.S.

    To A Palauan, I think you’re being a little too harsh on Copeman and National Geograpic. We can’t blame them for one persons faults. It’s just hard for me to believe that all the chiefs knew and one didn’t, especially one of the paramount chiefs, and in Palau there are only two paramount chiefs. Kid a ngelekel Belau, so I understand where your coming from in your argument.

  20. I have seen some Palauans that I thought probably had an ancestor that was “little”. In fact, I know of one woman and her siblings who remind me of little people. Who knows….their probably relatives. I mean if small people can have children of normal sizes, what makes you think that it is pretty unlikely they could be related to someone in Palau. They could of also married the normal size people and bore children. Scientists keep guessing and giving their discovery a story, natives tell stories of people coming in to the island of Palau from other places in ancient times and some Palauans brought these foreigners at the time into their families to become a part of their clan. I have relatives who’s ancestors came from New Guinea and Puerto Rico thousands of years ago. How they became a part of my clan started when my great ancestor brought in people that came ashore and lived on the beach side of the island of Kayangel. We’re not blood related but over the years ties within culture and taking in people into a clan binded us to be related. When I ask my mother “mom are they related to us?” she says it’s “ulak el klauchad”. Tied relations or adoption into a clan. Or “ulak el klauchad el loiak a siukang” meaning related throughout years of custom and tradition. You never know who’s related to who…..

  21. merang tekoi. A kot kid el chad er belau need to know all the things happen or thier doing something that related to our ancestors & history of palau. Not only permount chiefs or president or all the congress without puplic citizen approval.Before moving or digging around palau island.sulang……………………………………………………

  22. Dear Anthropology,
    Thanks for this article on sacred places. Since perhaps the beginning of time, humans have set fourth on a journey to discover their spiritual relationship with themselves, our planet, and the universe. Pilgrims pursue a prophesized destination; shaman prepare for vision quest; priests lead their flock; visionaries dream of a temple where there once was none; and modern travelers load up their backpacks and set forth.
    Brad Olsen, author of three books on the subject of Sacred Places:
    Winner, “Best Book for Planet Earth” award

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