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The Republic of Palau (Belau)


A traditional meeting house (bai) in Palau.
A traditional meeting house (bai) in Palau. (Photo: Jane Thomas, IAN Image Library)

The original settlers of Palau are believed to have arrived from Indonesia as early as 2,500 B.C. The islands’ proximity to Southeast Asia and exposure to Oceania contributed to a population mixture of southeastern Asian, Melanesian, Filipino, and Polynesian ancestry. In 2008, the population of Palau was approximately 21,000, of whom 70% were native Palauans. Two-thirds of Palau’s population is located on Koror, even though the new capitol city, Melekeok, is on the large island of Babeldaob. Palau's most populated islands are Babeldaob, Kokor, Peleliu, and Angaur, which lies several miles to the south.

Skulls of small-bodied humans from Palau
Skulls of small-bodied humans from Palau (Photo: Institute for Human Origins and the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontology/University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa)

Scientists from the South African University of the Witwatersrand have found evidence of a population of small-bodied humans that lived in Palau at least 3,000 years ago.  Thousands of bones between 1,400 and 3,000 years old were discovered in sea-washed caves indicating that the population probably died out about 1,400 years ago. The inhabitants were of particularly small size – around 3-4 feet (94-120 cm) tall – and weighed between 70 and 90 pounds (32 and 41 kilograms). Scientists have debated wheth­er the bones in the caves came from a species of min­ia­ture hu­ma­n­s, as their disco­verers ar­gue, or just modern humans with unusually small bodies, possibly malformed by genetic or pathological disorders. Populations of modern humans on isolated islands with limited resources often evolve short statures.

The Palauan social structure is now a complex blend of old traditions and western concepts. Before European influence, Palau had already developed a sophisticated and highly organized matrilineal social system based on clans and chiefdoms.  Villages were organized by clanships through the female line and subdivided into two political statuses.  A Council of chiefs, comprised of a member of each of the ten ranking clans of a community, governed the village. Women had an important advisory role and were particularly influential in the control of land and money.