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Archaeologists estimate that the archipelago of Palau was inhabited some 4,000–4,500 years ago, and Palauans took part in the wide-ranging Micronesian trade system, interacting with other Micronesians and even Malay traders. Some pictographs are visible to this day in Ulong Island.
Palau was first brought to the attention of the outside world when Captain Henry Wilson of the English vessel, Antelope, was shipwrecked on Palau's barrier reef near the island of Ulong in 1783. With assistance from Koror's High Chief Ibedul, Captain Wilson and his crew used the wreckage of the Antelope to build another vessel and sailed away three months later.
Joining them on their journey back to England was Lebuu, son of the high chief. Word of Captain Wilson's voyage spread, leading to further European contact, and in 1885, Spain was granted control of Palau by Pope Leo XIII. In 1899, Palau was sold by Spain to Germany, who quickly established mining and other operations tapping Palau's resources.
Following Germany's defeat in World War I, the islands of Palau were granted to the Japanese under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and by 1922, Palau had become the administrative headquarters for Japanese-controlled territories in Micronesia and the South Pacific. Japan closed off Palau (and their other possessions in Micronesia) from the rest of the world and began heavy fortification of the islands. Palau saw heavy fighting during World War II, including massive aerial bombardments of Koror launched from fast carrier task forces and particularly during the assault and liberation of Peleliu Island by U.S. Marines, which resulted in horrendous casualties on both sides. Remnants of WWII are still visible throughout Palau today including a huge fleet of ship wrecks and plane wrecks resting at the bottom of Palau's inner lagoon.
Following Japan's defeat in WWII, the Caroline Islands, including Palau, Yap and Truk, the Marianas Islands which include Saipan, Tinian and Rota, and the Marshall Islands which include Bikini Atoll, became United Nations Trust Territories to be administered by the United States.
On October 1, 1994, Palau became the last of the Trust Territory islands to gain independence following the signing of a Compact of Free Association with the United States and became the newest member of the United Nations. While Palau continues a very close relationship with the United States, it is nonetheless an independent republic and a sovereign nation.
Ratified in 1981, the Palau national constitution is the world's first nuclear-free constitution. It is modeled on the United States constitution with a popularly elected president and vice president, two-house National Congress, and a judiciary. There are sixteen states, each with a governor and state constitution. Palau's president and a vice president are the highest ranking officials; Palau has no political parties.
Palauan culture is a clan society in a complex matriarchal system. Historically and nowadays, Palauan villages are organized around clans, and are governed by a council of chiefs from the 10 ranking clans. The female counterparts of the high-ranking chiefs hold an advisory role in the control and division of land and money.
Palau has 16 states, based on historical village-states, each with its own male and female chief-councils; the council of chiefs from each state advises the national government. Palau has two high chiefs, Ibedul (title of the high chief of Oreor, now Koror, which controls the South clans, including Peleliu, the Rock Islands and Koror) and Reklai (title of the high chief of Melekeok, one of Babeldaob's states, which controls all Babeldaob). The Ibedul of Koror and the Reklai of Melekeok continue to be the chiefs of Palau and play a significant role in the society.
Men and women used to hold defined roles in the life of the village. 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 houses mastering techniques of canoe building and refining their skills with weapons. Women, on the other hand, held sway in the home. They cultivated vegetables and harvested shellfish and sea cucumbers from the shallow reefs.
Traditional ceremonies are held regularly in Palau to this day, such as the omersurch (birth ceremony), ocheraol (first-house ceremony), and the kemeldiil (funeral ceremony).
Most Palauans practise Christianity, imported by the Spanish and Germans, although traditional beliefs, Modekngei, coexist alongside Christianity.
The Palauan language belongs to the Austronesia language family, but is not a Micronesian or Polynesian language like most of its neighbors, but rather, an independent branch of the Malayo-Polynesian languages, and its origin is rather obscure. Palauan language was a spoken language until Latin characters were introduced in Palau upon the arrival of westerners.
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