Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau): a new World Heritage site for the Pacific

At the 36th meeting of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (RISL) became the latest Pacific site to be inscribed onto UNESCO’s register of World Heritage (see the Government of Palau’s submission to the WHC).

(photograph by Patrick Colin)

Australian researchers at the ANU have assisted Palau in becoming the first Small Island Developing State in the Pacific to be granted a World Heritage site on the basis of its outstanding natural and cultural values. Assoc. Prof. Geoff Clark and Dr Christian Reepmeyer are archaeologists in Archaeology and Natural History (CHL, CAP) who studied ancient settlements on Palau’s Rock Islands in the Southern Lagoon [read more about their recent work in the Rock Islands – Southern Lagoon area in Pacific Islands Heritage (Terra Australis 35) and the latest issue of the ANH newsletter, p.7].

Chomedokl Island: A Rock Island burial cave. (photograph by Clark/Reepmeyer ANU)

Remains of several large villages show that people once lived throughout the Rock Islands, but around 500 years ago all of the islands were abandoned with climate records indicating that drought was the likely cause of depopulation. The prehistoric village sites in the Rock Islands  are one of the few places in the world where the consequences of climate change to human society can be identified from exceptionally well-preserved archaeological sequences and ancient climate records from marine lakes.

Scientific data are increasingly used to establish the significance of heritage sites in the Pacific, and Clark says that ‘academics need to work closely with local communities and governments in the Pacific* to preserve and manage the region’s remarkable cultural heritage sites, which have only recently been recognized as being of world significance.’ The ANU researchers have a current ARC project with climate scientists to investigate climate change and island abandonment in Palau,** and are assisting Tonga to prepare a World Heritage nomination of the ancient capital of the Tu’i Tonga chiefdom.

Red painted rock art at a prehistoric site on Ulong Island (photograph by Clark/Reepmeyer ANU).

The inscription of Rock Islands Southern Lagoon on the World Heritage List is the latest example of the important role of ANU researchers in promoting the world heritage significance of sites in the Pacific. In 2008, Chief Roi Mata’s Domain (Vanuatu) was inscribed on the World Heritage List with the assistance of ANU academics Dr Chris Ballard and Dr Meredith Wilson (with Prof. Matthew Spriggs and Dr Stuart Bedford) and in the same year, Kuk Early Agricultural Site (PNG) was inscribed with the assistance of recent work by ANU graduates Dr Tim Denham and Dr John Muke (building on the pioneering work of Emeritus Professor Jack Golson, Dr Philip Hughes and others).

[* Clark and Reepmeyer acknowledge the important contribution to regional heritage of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities in providing funding assistance to Pacific island nations for WHS nominations.]
[** see Clark, G. and C. Reepmeyer 2012 Climate change in the occupation and abandonment of Palau’s Rock Islands. Archaeology in Oceania 47(1): 29-38.]

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