What's in a name? The islands are locally known as Belau. Early explorers called them Los Palaos. New Philippines and Pelew Islands. The Spanish dubbed it the Caroline Islands before the Germans finally gave it its present name, Palau.
It took a stroke of fate to initiate Palau's contact with the outside world. On a stormy August night in 1873, British Captain, Henry Wilson ran aground in his Antelope, off the shores of Ulong Island. What he discovered was fascinating -- an ancient culture steeped in tradition and living in perfect harmony with nature. Before then, no definitive written records existed, so it is not known how or when people first arrived on these islands. Modern carbon dating conducted recently found archeological sites and burial grounds go back three millenia, to 1,000 BC. The ancient ruins of Imeungs, located on a hill embraced by a ridge of mountains, was once a political and military center in the southwestern portion of Babeldaob. There are ancient stone pathways, foundations, a natural amphitheater and pillars in what was a highly organized and mobile olden society, all over Babeldaob, there is a network of ancient storne paths criss-crossing the island to illustrate this.
The two museums on Koror house a national treasury of historical and cultural artifacts. The more than 1,000 objects contained in these museums include antique glass paste beads, shell money, costumes, domestic utensils, weapons, tools and ornaments. Together they offer a glimpse into Palau's past, as well as provide an abilitiy to understand what trasnpsires in the present. To illustrate, the beads were used as exchange money in the past, but are even more valuable today. Their origin remains a mystery.
Palau villages are traditionally organized around matrilineal lineage. Men and women had strictly defined roles. A council of chiefs governed the villages while a parallel council of women held an advisory role in the control of land, money and the selection of chiefs. While women were caretakers of their homes and families, they also carried the responsibility of educating their children about Palauan traditions and culture, ensuring the continuity of the village or clan. They also cultivate taro fields and harvested shellfish from the shallow reefs. The sea was the domain of men, who braved its fury to harvest the fish necessary to sustain the village and wage battle. Inter-village wars were common so men spent a lot of time in the men's meeting hall or Bai mastering techniques of canoe-building and refining their weaponry skills.
Presently, the system of government is democratic, patterned after that of the United States and so is the legal system. But even as there are governors voted in to head of each one of the 16 states, local chiefs are still elected the traditional way and wield a lot of power over their respective communities. To epitomize this, throughout Palau are Bai, meeting halls. The Melekeok Bai, with its brightly painted carvings depicting stories of its glorious past, is where not one but several meeting halls aptly represent Melekeok's military might during many inter-village wars. The last remaining original Bai, built many years before WWII and left unscathe by the war is the Airai Bai. It is where painted carvings are brought to life by local guides' translation, portraying how Palau's chiefs conducted their business. Although Palauan history had only been preserved orally in the past, the exceptions to this were the legends carved and painted into beams and gables of these Bai meeting halls.
In the century following the islands' discovery by the outside world, 1800s, traders frequented the islands, with Spain taking control over the islands, asserting their rights over the Caroline Islands in 1885. Germany brought the islands in 1899, and upon the defeat in WWI, the islands were formally passed to the Japanese under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and after the defeat of Japan in WWII, Palau was sanctioned as a US Trust Territory until becoming independent Republic with the signing of the Compact of Free Association with the United States. All of these external influences no doubt reflect the multifaceted aspects of Palau's culture, even as many of its innate traits remains.
Strongly representing the many inherent cultural customs inclinations still in practice today in Palau is dance. Often accmpanied by chats, dances are performed at ceremonies commemorative or/and special days of events. Significantly, the movements are fluid and unhurried. Whether traditional or modern, the slowed-dance, subtle movements reflects the laid back and relaxed society.