The Lelu Ruins

The Lelu ruins are a historic site of great importance. Visually, they qualify as a "Wonder of the Pacific." along with Nan Madol (Pohnpei) and Easter Island's statues. Historically, it was the capital or ruling center of Kosrae—a feudal society which was at the pinnacle of complex political development in prehistoric Micronesia (similar to Hawaiian and Tongan societies in Polynesia). Kosrae's society had a great influence not only on Kosrae, but on Pohnpei and probably Chuuk (Truk).

The complex Kosraean society of which Lelu was the ruling center developed over 500 years ago (c. A.D. 1400) with the unification of the island's several societies by a society based in the Lelu area. The massive walled compounds in the ruins date back to this time. The first European expeditions to Kosrae (the French in 1824 and the Russians in 1827) documented the Kosraean society as it existed 400 years after its initial development. At that time, there were c. 3,000-6,000 people on the island. They were divided into four social strata: the king or Tokosra, about twenty high chiefs (mwetleum), about fifty low chiefs (mwetsuksuk), and commoners (mwetsrisrik). The king and a few of the high chiefs owned all the land, which was divided into sections called facl. Each lord owned several facl and appointed low chiefs to watch after their lands. These low chiefs lived on the main island overseeing the commoners. Commoners owned no land. They held use rights to land plots, which could be taken away if the commoner did not supply enough tribute to his overlord. Tribute consisted of labor, food and shell-money valuables. In sum, life in old Kosrae favored the chiefs and kings. They were treated with extreme respect and awe, and their wishes were carried out by the commoners.

The king and high chiefs all lived in Lelu along with their servants, other commoners and low chiefs. At European Contact (A.D. 1824), Lelu had about 1,500 residents.

The "city" contained over 100 walled compounds covering all of the flat area of Lelu Island and the three adjacent islets of Pisin, Yenyen and Yenasr. It was as large in area as Nan Madol and apparently included more land area.

To understand the old center of Lelu, you must consider the walled compound. Most of these were dwelling areas. Those of the king and high chiefs were surrounded by high walls and contained several houses. Besides dwelling compounds, there were two royal burial compounds and there were sixteen sacred compounds. These sacred compounds held small spirit-houses associated with Kosraean gods.

The part of the ruins which is still intact includes many of the high chiefs' dwelling compounds, both royal burial compounds and a few sacred compounds. These are the ruins you can see. The walls of the king's compound, the low chiefs' and commoners' compounds, and most of the sacred compounds have been torn down in the 100 years since the bulk of the old city of Lelu was abandoned.

Over the years Lelu has seen three periods of archaeological research. In 1910 the German Sudsee Expedition did mapping and excavations of three royal tombs, and in 1929 a Japanese expedition excavated the remaining two royal tombs. Both of these excavations were brief and done with techniques now long outdated. From 1979-1983 more modern work has been undertaken by the Kosrae Historic Preservation Office and archaeologists from Hawaii. This work has been much more intensive, and more results have become available. One of the aims of this work has been to preserve the remaining parts of Lelu Ruins as a historic park.


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