Sisyphus Project: “Paddling the Stones” of Nan Madol

Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra, now known as Corinth. According to Greek mythology, the gods punished him for self-aggrandizing by forcing him to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down every time it neared the top. He would repeat this action for eternity. This post will show how the stones of Nan Madol may have been moved.

“To reveal all is to die”

In my last post, “The Book of Luelen — First Book Written by a Micronesian,” the title is a subheading taken from a 2005 paper published by the Micronesian Area Research Center at the University of Guam. The paper, “Luelen Bernart: His Times, His Book, And His Inspiration,” was written by Dirk Anthony Ballendorf and published in the Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences. It is much shorter than Glenn Petersen’s monograph Lost in the Weeds: Theme and Variation in Pohnpei Political Mythology, referenced in my last post and cited again here. Dr. Ballendorf, a returned volunteer himself, was one of the experts on Micronesia asked by the Peace Corps in 1967 to participate in my Peace Corps training.

In his paper, Ballendorf, now deceased, directly expresses a point that Petersen alluded to fifteen years earlier: “On Pohnpei, as elsewhere in Micronesia, people are distinguished from one another largely by what they know. Talents vary, but one rule governs: a man cannot tell all that he knows, lest he lose that which makes him special. To reveal all is to die.”

I ran into this during my uninterrupted four-year sojourn on Rongelap. Men would gladly teach me things they withheld from other islanders. They treated me differently specifically because I was an outsider and not part of the islanders’ food-gathering competitions among themselves. By the end of my fourth year, I was feeding so many people with my fishing and jekaro prowess that women started complaining to their husbands, “Why can’t you provide like the ripālle?” Only then did some of the men become jealous.

“A major break in tradition”

There is little doubt that such guarding of information has resulted in the loss of traditional navigational skills, as well as stories, songs and other elements of oral literature. What does this have to do with The Book of Luelen? Ballendorf points out, “The publication of The Book of Luelen . . . marked a major break with this tradition. . . . A body of information, transmitted orally from one generation to the next over a period of centuries, has now been put down in writing.”

Let us see what clues the written word gives us — perhaps something that Bernart himself was unaware of. Maybe we can find an answer to a big question: How did earlyPohnpeians move such mammoth stones to the Temwen reef to build their city? To do this, maybe we can take clues from Bernart and hypothesize as to what they might have meant. After all, by 1943, the year he began his book, how many centuries had passed since his people had placed the last stones? Is it possible that Bernart’s written words, translated from Pohnpeian phrases routinely memorized, could have passed down elements he himself, for lack of perspective, did not fully understand?

In my last post, I pointed out that Bernart’s description of Pohnpeian life as “poor” before Oljopa and as “happy” after — along with his term “obtained” regarding the stones — could be words residual to an ancient system of commerce. In this post, I will look at how Bernart himself describes the placement of these stones and how these words, habitually recited for centuries, may reveal more than he realized.

Bernart’s Chapter 23 is about the construction of Pankatira, the islet that became the residence of the Saudeleur rulers. This is one of the larger structures of Nan Madol and must have taken years to build. According to legend, stone-fitters from Pohnpei, Matolenim, Kusaie, Kiti and Jokaj constructed the four corners (in fact, there are six) of this structure. Bernart is probably talking about the cornerstones (usually the largest) that lie directly upon the reef.

Riding the stones

Anyway, the chapter digresses into an elaboration about the master stone-fitter named Kiteumanien, who came from Jokaj. Bernart says, “He rode on a length of stone [in the water] from Jokaj.” The editors added the words in brackets, and an editor’s footnote reads, “Probably not meant literally, but a reference to rafting the prism-like lengths of stone from Jokaj, whence a large part of the building material no doubt came.”

I am not suggesting the editors were wrong here. For several reasons, including the fact that stones have been found on the bottom of the lagoon, anthropologists believe that they were rafted about the island. However, I am curious why the editors used the word “probably.” This may be because Bernart continues in the same vein: “[W]hen he rode on the length of stone, they gave him the name of Konjai. He then set down the stone as the foundation stone of the corner which the people of Jokaj made.” So Kiteumanien rides the stone in one sentence and sets it in the next.

The next verse is all about this man Kiteumanien and how the people changed his name as he moved about Pohnpei and laid down cornerstones. The people of Kiti called him Japaltito (Walking Downwind Hither). In Matolenim they called him Jaujapal (Master of Walking). When he later returned to Jokaj, they gave him the new name Japalatak (Walking Upwind). Why the terms “riding” the stone and “walking”?

The next chapter is about Lienlama and her two sons, Jarapuau and Monimur. The boys have several adventures in Verses 1 and 2. Then in Verse 3, Bernart says, “They then launched a length of stone and paddled forth on it.” Perhaps a good understanding of Pohnpeian would clear all this up. I realize I’m working with an English translation, but these terms are food for thought once you consider what Vincent R. Lee suggests in his pamphlet The Sisyphus Project: Moving Big Rocks Up Steep Hills and Into Small Places. Lee published this description of his project in 1988 before presenting it to the 39th Annual Meeting of the Institute of Andean Studies the next year. It is available from Sixpac Manco Publications, PO Box 107, Wilson, Wyoming 83014.

How the stones of Nan Madol may have been moved

This picture from Lee’s publication — which describes Bernart’s “launching” and “riding” and even the “paddling” and “walking” — is worth a thousand words. Lee’s project started when he was asked to take part in the filming of a NOVA TV special on Easter Island. The film was to examine the handling methods for moving and erecting moai, the huge stone statues for which the island is famous. The average height of these nine hundred or so statues is about 4 m, or 13 ft. Their average weight is about 12.5 tons, but some are as tall as 10 m, or 33 ft, and weigh an estimated 82 tons.

The Rapa Nui transported the moai from their quarry at Rano Raraku and placed them around the periphery of the island, facing inland across their clan lands. The NOVA special featured many men pulling a moai sled over rollers.

Lee devised his system after the experience showed him two important things. First, the track is as important as the sled. Second, the addition of levers allows for fewer men and the ability to maneuver a stone into a place — such as the edge of a cliff — where horizontal pulling is impractical or impossible. Note that the basic concept of Lee’s system is based on a common method used throughout Oceania for hauling and launching large canoes up and down the shore. Anthropologists believe that the Rapa Nui islanders were carving and moving their moai around 1250. This compares to the dates over which the construction of Nan Madol took place.

I’m not suggesting a link between Easter Island and Pohnpei. What I am suggesting is that the people in these places moved the stones, including those of Nan Madol, with the same commonplace technology they used to launch their canoes. It was so commonplace, in fact, that there was no need for further elaboration. Easter Island and Pohnpei may have the most flamboyant examples of megalithic structures in the Pacific, but they are far from singular. Tonga has an ancient city called Mu’a with a pyramid. In Tonga-Toba there are immense stone arches called “trilithons” that weigh an estimated 20 tons each. In Nuku Hiva there are ruins with massive platforms of enormous basalt blocks. Other megalithic structures exist in Palau, Tinian, the island of Hawai’i and elsewhere. A likely conclusion is that they all shared similar commonplace technologies and corresponding economies to sustain these multicentury endeavors.


  1. I think i will have to disagree with you on this one, respectfully. And unless you’ve done field work in Pohnpei, please stop speculating. All Pohnpeians know how the city was built, it’s just something that’s not talked freely about. Thank you.

    1. Red: I’m not sure if I responded to this earlier. It’s been a busy morning for me. Thank you very much for your response. I really appreciate it and respect your opinion. You’ve got me here. Although I have visited the Nan Madol site I am not an anthropologist or archaeologist and have not done any formal research outside of reading the reports as well as studying Luelen Bernart’s book. I am a writer and amateur historian and my job, so to speak, is to speculate on such things and write fiction about them. In my defense, you will note I said “may have been moved” by the method described in my post. I also suggested, as you point out, that Micronesians do not reveal all they know for cultural reasons, and we all must respect that. My books are fiction which means: stories made up. The next book in my series is called The Forbidden Man and the one after that is called The Fall of the Saudeleurs. These are both fiction and like Man Shark are not meant to be more than a crude reflection of Micronesia’s cultural history.

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