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Dr. Felicia Beardsley hacks away at the jungle on the Micronesian island of Kosrae to make a clearing for a camp during a summer expedition.

Dr. Felicia Beardsley hacks away at the jungle on the Micronesian island of Kosrae to make a clearing for a camp during a summer expedition.

In Search of a Missing Goddess

Professor of Anthropology succeeds where others fail in search of ancient artifacts.

  • October 18, 2010

The island talks to her, say the Kosraeans who work with La Verne professor of anthropology Dr. Felicia Beardsley. She has repeatedly found things, important things, that others could not.

The island of Kosrae, in Micronesia, features some rugged jungle terrain, including tall mountains.

Five years ago she found within a week the site where, according to legend, an ancient king and his attendants had been murdered. This summer Dr.Beardsley proved once again that she had the magic touch by finding the village site deep in the heart of the island where their ancestors once gathered to pay tribute to and commune with the goddess Sinlaku. She is called the Breadfruit Goddess or, sometimes, the Goddess of Nature.

The Sinlaku story is at the heart of Micronesian identity, and once long ago she her story formed the core of their belief system. Across the Western Pacific, from the Marshall Islands in the east to the Palaus in the west, she is the stuff of legend and mystery. Importantly, her spirit has persisted in the minds of these Pacific Islanders despite centuries of colonial incursions, missionary invasions, two world wars, and a wash of western commerce and popular culture.

A tarp lean-to marked the center of the expedition's primitive camp, cleared from the dense jungle.

The stories that are told still today say that Sinlaku had once resided on Kosrae,  a large high island on the eastern edge of Micronesia. When the missionaries arrived in late 1800s and early 1900s it is believed she fled the island to take up residence on the island of Yap on the western edge of Micronesia, and island where to this day traditional values and ways of living have managed to endure. Such is the power of her story, however, that many still feel her presence and attach importance to the place where she is said to have once resided.

Right next to the campsite stood an ancient wall of stones.

So, on commission of the Kosraean government, Dr. Beardsley went into the jungle in search of Sinlaku. It wasn’t that the goddess was truly lost. People on the island of Kosrae knew more or less where her abode was suppose to be. Hunters who frequently go into the jungle for wild pig and pigeons had for decades reported encounters with the spirit of this goddess or brought back stories of having seen the remnants of the village where their ancestors had gathered to pay tribute to her. But it was Dr. Beardsley who, with her crew of seven Kosraean men and ten others from island states and nations across the western Pacific, went into the heart of the jungle on Kosrae to find it and map it out. They were not to be disappointed. Within a week they found what they had gone looking for, and more.

They set up camp in the heart of the site, among the old stone foundations of the compounds. They erected makeshift shelters with tarps and ropes, set up a kitchen, and some of Dr. Beardsley’s regulars went out to set traps for wild pig and get river eel for their evening meals. “The boys were excited,” said Dr. Beardsley. “They had found a dead wild pig on the trek in, and were certain that Sinlaku was providing it just for us, a good sign according to the boys. I suggested they might trap fresh pig, as this one had been dead a little too long.”

Cooking was done on an oven made of stacked logs.

The most difficult part was cutting the dense jungle, clearing enough of it away to reveal what was on the ground. This work was made all the more difficult by the daily downpours common to this region. Equally problematic was the general nervousness among some on the crew who were concerned about encounters with ghosts and spirits, and in particular the spirit of Sinlaku herself. One member of the party, a man from another island, informed Dr. Beardsley one morning that he had been visited in the night by such a spirit, a woman who stood over him and talked to him. He said he did not open his eyes, fearing what might happen to him. He was sure it was a spirit because, he said, there are no women in camp, and this was a woman. Dr. Beardsley reminded him that she was in fact a woman, but he merely shook his head and said: “No, you’re the doc.” And, as expected, when Dr. Beardsley and her crew returned at week’s end to the main town on the coast to re-provision, the first thing they were asked: “Did you see any ghosts? Did you see Sinlaku?”

Workers take a break in camp, the only shelter from the tropical elements.

The work at the site in the jungle, despite the rains, was yielding vital new clues and some fairly solid evidence that this was indeed the village of Sinlaku, complete with stone platforms to accommodate houses of those came there to pay tribute to the goddess, stone carvings of fish and other animals identifying the clan membership of those who attended, stone carvings depicting human faces, the remnants of stone chairs and what may even have been an altar for offerings.

This rock formation was identified as a face, left by inhabitants centuries ago.

Among the extraordinary finds was a small cave hidden by thick jungle at the base of the island’s tallest mountain. The entry had been modified with stone steps. Inside Dr. Beardsley found charred rocks, a small rock shelf, and, most astonishing of all, a painting on the ceiling depicting two faces. On the left side was the face of man identifiable by the traditional topknot. To the right was a smaller face in white emerging from a white splash of color, a spirit. The suspicion, said Dr, Beardsley, is that this was the place where the priests or priestesses who served Sinlaku communed with her.

For Berlin Sigrah, the head of the state Historic Preservation Office, this is a major accomplishment. As a result of this project and previous projects led by Dr. Beardsley on Kosrae, the people are regaining a better picture of their past and having new life breathed into their old stories, stories that are once again a source of pride. In a conversation with Dr. Beardsley as the work for this initial survey was complete he mused over missed opportunities. He talked about Sinlaku’s servants as women. He also said that these women were still alive around the time of World War II, and that they had been given special powers of prediction. Berlin even said one of these old women was still alive when they were just building the Historic Preservation Office.

On a cave ceiling, a drawing depicts the flowing white hair of the goddess Sinlaku, the subject of Dr. Beardsley's expedition.

Unfortunately, he said, their work back then was just beginning so they never got around to interviewing the lady before she died.

“Much more work lies ahead,” said Dr. Beardsley. “With luck, and funding, we will return to the site to do a full survey and excavation. We need to provide the local government with the information they need to further improve upon the legislation to protect these sites and cultural materials we are finding. I wrote the current legislation, which was recently approved by the government, but now we have even better information to guide us.”

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